By Brent Kendall
WASHINGTON -- As the coronavirus was emerging as an international concern, a U.S. government agency sold 80 cases of protective masks that are now in high demand, though it canceled another sale weeks later as the nation was bracing for a domestic outbreak.
The quantity of masks involved in the sales -- nearly 13,000 -- is just a tiny fraction of the number needed nationwide, but the transactions highlight one way in which U.S. officials were behind some international counterparts in gearing up for the coronavirus threat.
The General Services Administration, which handles procurement and other support services for government agencies, on Feb. 1 auctioned off two lots of N95 respirator masks manufactured by 3M Co. Each lot contained 40 cases of the masks, with 160 masks per case, and sold for $11,530 and $11,136, respectively.
The auction closed two days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a public-health emergency of international concern.
The N95 masks can help protect medical workers from being infected by the coronavirus patients they are treating. Because of high demand, officials around the country are scrambling for additional masks, with some medical workers having to re-use their masks due to the shortage.
The type of mask the GSA was selling is often used in construction, but also is approved for medical use. They are among the masks being worn on the front lines by coronavirus responders.
The GSA listed for sale another two lots of 40 cases each in late February, as the U.S. was warning of a likely domestic outbreak and urging schools, businesses and communities to brace themselves. The winning auction bids increased nearly fivefold from the beginning of the month, each topping $50,000.
The government canceled those two sales before the winning bidder submitted payment, GSA spokeswoman Pamela Pennington said.
"GSA auctions surplus property as part of our ongoing mission. Anytime our nation is facing a disaster or emergency, we quickly shift gears to identify property that would be useful for the response effort," Ms. Pennington said.
She said GSA only auctions surplus property if no government agency expresses interest in it. The Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services recently sought the still-available masks. Most are going to HHS in a delivery that is being coordinated now, Ms. Pennington said.
GSA auctions don't indicate why the government is selling surplus products or who buys them.
The masks listed for auction were among supplies held at a federal facility in Denver.
In early February, bidders paid the GSA less than $2 per mask. The winning bids in the canceled auctions came in at nearly $8 a mask.
That is on the high side, even during current crisis-era negotiations for supplies. Last week New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo voiced frustration that his state was paying $7 a mask when they used to cost less than $1.
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