U.S. companies exported millions in medical equipment to China before the spread hit home

A new report from USAToday shows American companies exported millions in medical equipment needed to fight the coronavirus to China before the crisis hit home.

USA Today reports U.S. exports of surgical masks, ventilators and other personal protective gear to China skyrocketed in January and February, when the coronavirus was wreaking havoc in the country where it began and as U.S. intelligence agencies warned it would soon spread.

American companies sold more than $17.5 million worth of face masks, more than $13.6 million in surgical garments and more than $27.2 million in ventilators to China during the first two months of the year, far exceeding that of any other similar period in the past decade, according to the most recent foreign trade data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.

USA TODAY’s analysis of the trade numbers comes as medical professionals on the front lines of the nationwide crisis say they are being forced to reuse or go without personal protective equipment like surgical masks and face shields to account for a shortage. Some states also are scrambling to find ventilators to prepare for a crush of patients expected to need them.

The White House and congressional intelligence committees were briefed on the scope and threat of the coronavirus in January and February, but President Donald Trump has not stopped exports of key medical equipment – a move taken by at least 54 other countries so far.

The data show how U.S. manufacturers stepped up production and cleared out inventory to supply protective medical equipment to China for weeks, even as the threat of the coronavirus became clear. The CDC reported its first case in the United States on Jan. 20. Within the next two weeks, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had declared the disease a public health emergency.

More than 213,000 people have been infected and more than 5,600 have died in the U.S. as of Thursday, the CDC reported.

“Clearly there was a surge in demand going on in China, and fundamentally this was a free market” decision, said Michelle Connolly, a Duke University economist. “What was in the U.S. was clearly going out, and specifically to China.”

The U.S. exported more than $1.7 million worth of surgical masks to China in January alone – more than double the previous January. In February, shipments surged to $15.8 million, the data show.

Jesse Wang, co-founder of LuggEasy, a company that provides shipping services to Chinese residents in the U.S., confirmed the surge of masks exports in February. His company exported 14,000 to 15,000 pounds of masks from the U.S. to China in early 2020 alone.

At a retail price of roughly 50 cents a mask – which is likely higher than what wholesale customers would have paid – that meant more than 31.6 million surgical masks were shipped to China during the second month of the year, based on the trade data.

Taken together, the numbers add up to well over the 28.5 million face masks that mayors of nearly 200 U.S. cities told a trade organization they need to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

Ventilators, too, saw a spike. The U.S. exported $11.4 million worth of the breathing machines to China in the first two month of last year compared with $27.2 million in the first two months of this year, just weeks before states and hospitals started begging the federal government to send them more.

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