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NC Paid More Than $220 Million Competing For Early Coronavirus Supplies

The N95 mask, made by 3M.

This past spring, as stockpiles of personal protective equipment ran dry, North Carolina spent more than $220 million on various supplies, sometimes at a hefty markup.

Consider one example: The N95 mask. On May 7, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services bought 1 million masks for less than $700,000, an average of just 69 cents each. Two weeks later, on May 21, the state bought 1 million masks for more than $6.5 million, or $6.55 per-mask.

All told, the state bought 15 million N95 masks over a three-month period at an average price of $4.11 per-mask. Nationwide, states paid an average of $2.94 for N95 masks.

All data in this story comes from the Associated Press. The AP talliedmore than $7 billion in purchases by states this spring for personal protective equipment and high-demand medical devices such as ventilators and infrared thermometers.

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 whom they were paying during the chaotic early months of the pandemic, when inadequate national stockpiles left state governments scrambling for hard-to-get supplies.

Taken together, the AP data shows North Carolina paid more on a per-item basis than many other states. Not including ventilators or ventilator parts, which have a much higher per-unit cost than the other purchases analyzed in this data, North Carolina bought nearly 85 million pieces of PPE from March 11 through June 1. This includes gloves, coveralls, face shields, sanitizer, and the like. The state paid a total of $215 million, or $2.55 per-item.

On a per-unit basis for all items, only four states paid a higher price: Massachusetts, Montana, Michigan and Kentucky.

State health officials cautioned against drawing conclusions about costs using only high level information. In the early months of the pandemic, the state focused on stockpiling N95 masks specifically, which were hard to obtain and even in normal times cost more than other types of PPE.

Indeed, the state has stocked up on those masks. DHHS data show that as of Dec. 22, it had enough N95 masks to cover demand for 1,625 days, or more than four years.

NC DHHS dashboard showing stockpiles of PPE.
Credit NC DHHS
NC DHHS dashboard showing stockpiles of PPE.

Though states have spent millions more this fall as COVID-19 cases surged again, the initial PPE spending panic has subsided as production increased and supply chains improved.

The AP's data shows that millions of dollars flowed from states to businesses that had never before sold PPE. Those businesses faced a treacherous market, with backlogs at foreign manufacturers, shipping delays and multiple intermediaries.

All of that led to a spike in prices paid by the states, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

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 each, according to the AP's analysis. Some states paid more than $10 a mask to get them quickly.

Graph depicting the number of N95 respirators each state obtained per positive COVID-19 case as of June 1, 2020.
Credit Associated Press
Graph depicting the number of N95 respirators each state obtained per positive COVID-19 case as of June 1, 2020.

Jason deBruyn is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Digital News, a position he took in 2024. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016 as a reporter.
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