It’s a warehouse few have seen or even know exist. Photography of the outside isn’t allowed, and images of the inside are tightly controlled.
Not that images of the inside are terribly compelling: Aisle after aisle, spanning six football fields, stacked high with cardboard boxes. Sealed inside those boxes are vital medical supplies, such as vaccines and antibiotics, ready to be shipped out in the event of a life-threatening public health emergency.
If not for the security guards checking credentials, it’d be easy to dismiss the facility — one of more than 12 strategically located across the United States — as just another warehouse. The facility, part of the Strategic National Stockpile, rose to prominence in the early days of the Covid pandemic — not for its utility, but for its failure to provide health care workers with lifesaving supplies.
NBC News was granted exclusive access inside one of the top-secret facilities — the first news organization allowed inside with television cameras since the pandemic began — and spoke with federal health officials who are now grappling with rebuilding supplies, correcting the mistakes of the Covid crisis and trying to prepare for the next pandemic.
The early missteps can be attributed, in part, to a series of choices made by an obscure governing body about how to stock the stockpile — decisions made without input from health care workers or domestic manufacturers, experts said.
Those flawed supply decisions left health care workers without essential protective gear, or in some cases, the right equipment needed to provide lifesaving care to desperately ill patients during the pandemic’s first wave.
It “fell short,” said Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response appointed by President Joe Biden. Her division, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, oversees the federal stockpile. “It became very apparent when the whole world needed the same thing at the exact same time and none of it was here.”
The challenge now for O’Connell and other White House officials is to make sure the supplies in the warehouse are adequate for any future infectious disease outbreaks or other threats, known and unknown.
Where were the masks?
Greg Burel directed the Strategic National Stockpile from 2010 through January 2020. At the time, he said, he recognized that the $8.5 billion federal repository had long been depleted of personal protective equipment for medical workers.
With the pandemic looming, the United States had just 35 million N95 masks on hand, the vast majority left over from a single purchase made in 2009.
What Burel didn’t see coming was how, in a few short months, that shortfall would prove devastating.