CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire ordered $78 million worth of personal protective equipment and medical devices in the first several months of the coronavirus pandemic, with half the money going to 11 companies within the state, according to an analysis of state purchasing data by The Associated Press.
The AP tallied more than $7 billion in coronavirus purchases by states of protective gear and high-demand devices such as ventilators and infrared thermometers from the emergence of COVID-19 in the U.S. in early 2020 to the start of summer.
The 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.
New Hampshire’s records show purchase orders with 25 companies between Feb. 12 and June 11, though some of those contracts fell through, said Perry Plummer, former assistant commissioner of safety. But the state never paid upfront and thus didn’t lose any money, he said.
“New Hampshire was positioned very, very well because we never fronted any money during this whole pandemic. Other states, and certainly other vendors, lost millions of dollars because they were sending money and never got the product,” he said Thursday.
“Gov. Sununu took a stand and said we will not pay until we put our hands on the product and look at it, which quite frankly created challenges but certainly provided us protection, and in the long run, that was a tremendously smart strategy," Plummer said.
One shipment that never materialized was a $2.75 million order for 500,000 N95 masks from Wildflower Wellness, a Canadian developer and distributer of hemp CBD-infused health and wellness products, Plummer said. Though he did not know how the company came to the state’s attention, Plummer said it was not unusual for vendors to overpromise and underdeliver.
An official with Wildflower Wellness did not respond to a request for comment.
“Most of the time, it’s not fraud. They’re really trying to keep their commitment, but demand is higher than the supply,” Plummer said. “We were literally on the phone 24 hours a day chasing down leads where someone said they had PPE. And nine calls out of 10 were dead ends. ... I don’t know how this one came to us, but we were talking to a lot of unusual vendors.”
New Hampshire’s top protective equipment supplier was Grand Traverse Economic Development, a commercial investment entity for the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes in Michigan. It sold the state nearly $28 million worth of masks, gowns and other items this spring, turning a profit of around 10% to 15%, business development director Lauren Tucker said.
Plummer said the state had been doing business with an importer in Michigan who had a relationship with the tribes.
“They were well-funded. They had cash. So basically what happened was, he would do the transaction and we would cut the (purchase order) to them because they would front the money,” he said. “Really, they were the banker for the transaction, which puts them at risk, not us.”
The state’s second largest supplier, Manchester-based DEKA Research and Development, acted in a similar capacity, Plummer said.
“They’re literally fronting millions of dollars to pay for it up front,” he said. “They weren’t in the PPE business either, but they had international connections worldwide.”
The purchases from DEKA amounted to nearly $15 million, or 20% of the state’s total. Almost the same amount went to Body Armor Outlet in Salem, which specializes in protective gear for police but evolved into one of the nation’s 20 largest suppliers of personal protective equipment to states during the early months of the pandemic.
The state also ordered from nine other New Hampshire companies on a smaller scale, with orders ranging from $3,325 for masks from Time 4 Change Embroidery in Concord to $1 million for face shields from Relyco Sales, a paper distributor in Dover.
“If it was a New Hampshire-based company, we prioritized following up with them. It really wasn’t about building up our economy. It was, they’re in New Hampshire, we can vet them and know that they’re reliable,” he said.