In the early days of the pandemic, a team of Connecticut state employees felt they had no choice but to trust nontraditional sources to procure personal protective equipment, including coveted N95 masks, when long-established vendors couldn't deliver.
Grace Farms, an arts and social justice center located on 80 acres in New Canaan, and a Connecticut businessman with an office in China were among the suppliers the state ultimately relied on to help fill the void for desperately needed gear until long-term deals could be reached with manufacturers, said Carol Wilson, who oversees procurement for state agencies.
“We were panic-stricken early on because we placed orders; they'd say they would be here in two weeks. Four or five weeks later, they still weren’t here,” she recalled. “I don’t know how we did it. Looking back, I could write a book. We worked seven days a week, 14, 15, 16, 17 hour days just sourcing.”
Between March and today, Wilson said she and her team have received offers to supply personal protective equipment from nearly 3,000 individuals, companies and organizations that each had to be carefully vetted. Some were charging as much as $13 for a single N95 mask in late March and the first weeks of April.
“At that time, you were doing anything you could to find these masks. So anyone who called, you talked to them and you found out as much as you can,” she said. “And some of them were shrewd, you know, dishonest people trying to make a buck. And others really cared and wanted to help us.”
The Associated Press tallied more than $7 billion in coronavirus purchases by states this spring for protective gear and high-demand medical devices such as ventilators and infrared thermometers. The data covers the period from the emergence of COVID-19 in the U.S. in early 2020 to the start of summer.
The AP’s data, obtained through open records requests, is the most comprehensive accounting to date of how much states were buying, what they were spending and the vendors they were paying during a chaotic spring when inadequate national stockpiles left state governments scrambling for hard-to-get supplies.
States were competing against each other, hospitals, the federal government and even other countries. In many cases, they suspended normal competitive bidding requirements.
There was also a sharp increase in equipment prices as the virus began spreading. Before the pandemic, an N95 mask that filters out tiny particles might have cost around 50 cents. This spring, states paid an average of $3 for each N95, according to the AP’s analysis, and some paid more than $10 per mask to get them quickly.
In Connecticut, per unit costs for sizable orders of N95 masks varied significantly -- from 71 cents per N95 mask in an April 27 order from Shipman’s Fire Equipment to $5.80 per mask in a May 6 order from Grace Farms. But Wilson said the state ended up canceling the order from Shipman's, as well as other less expensive vendors, because they couldn't come through on deliveries.
She said the orders from Grace Farms, which sold the masks at cost to the state, were actually a good price at the time.
Connecticut ordered protective gear from Grace Farms, which has expertise in navigating international supply chains because of its efforts to end forced labor, after the organization had already purchased and donated $100,000 worth of equipment to the state.
The Grace Farms Alliance Against COVID-19, a group of nonprofit, for-profit and government entities, including Connecticut's sister city in China, formed early in the pandemic. It ultimately secured and distributed nearly 2.1 million pieces of personal protective equipment to health care workers and first responders throughout the state.
“It was an extraordinary effort over those few months to make all of this work. But it really made a big difference. And thankfully, the gap has been filled at this point,” said Elizabeth Rapuano, communications director for Grace Farms.
The state also worked with the Rossi Family Foundation, a charitable organization run by businessman Ted Rossi of Middle Haddam. He approached the state early in the pandemic and offered to get KN95 respirator masks.
In May, Wilson said the state “gambled” and entered long-term contracts directly with mask-makers 3M and Honeywell, not knowing what was going to happen with the pandemic.
“I’m so grateful we did because we have a standing order with each of those companies. They’re making monthly deliveries and we’re at a very competitive price right now,” she said.
Connecticut has also managed to build a 90-day stockpile of PPE, which hasn’t been tapped yet, even though the state is now experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases.