DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa has rebuilt its stockpile of personal protective equipment after a dire shortage that prompted the state to buy through unusual sources, including $7 million in contracts for gowns and goggles with a business known for making Republican campaign signs.
Iowa’s executive branch signed $45 million worth of emergency purchase orders for isolation gowns, masks, face shields, goggles and other equipment from mid-March through April, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.
The deals include 590,000 masks that were purchased directly from China and several with businesses that have never before supplied such materials.
In three contracts worth $7.2 million, the state agreed to purchase 1 million isolation gowns and 100,000 clear plastic goggles through Competitive Edge Inc., a Des Moines business that has never sold either. The company supplies promotional items like T-shirts, and has long been a go-to vendor for Republican campaigns buying yard and barn signs.
Owner David Greenspon, a former Republican appointee on the Iowa Finance Authority board, said state agencies reached out unsolicited asking for help securing supplies from China because he has long imported from there. Now Greenspon said he’s overseeing manufacturing in three Chinese factories and the items will be delivered to Iowa over the next month.
“We were lucky enough to get some business. I am happy about that. I like to be busy,” he said. “It’s been a tough few months but we didn’t close through any of it. Maybe that was fortuitous. When somebody from the state called, we were here.”
Greenspon is charging the state $6.96 per gown and $2.59 for each pair of goggles. He said neither item will be medical grade.
The contracts didn’t have to go through the mandatory open bidding process. Gov. Kim Reynolds suspended those requirements for all goods and services needed to fight the coronavirus in a March 9 emergency proclamation.
The governor said Friday the state has started to receive orders that were placed in March, allowing its inventory to be rebuilt. “Our stockpile is in a good place right now,” Reynolds said.
Executive branch spokeswoman Tami Wiencek said Iowa has ordered 33.6 million items since February and received more than half of them. She said orders for 1 million other items were cancelled after the vendor could not fulfill them on the state’s timeline.
A spreadsheet obtained by the AP shows Iowa’s inventory includes 8.8 million surgical masks, 664,000 face shields, 356,000 respirators, 1.3 million gloves, and 67,000 isolation gowns. But a shortage of goggles still exists.
These figures do not include millions of additional items the Iowa National Guard has delivered to all 99 counties. The situation has improved since the pandemic arrived in Iowa two months ago amid a national shortage of supplies, alarming health care officials.
On March 22, a top Iowa Department of Public Health official emailed University of Iowa experts asking whether used protective equipment could be disinfected by UV light or chemicals and reworn.
Ken Sharp, Iowa’s director of acute disease prevention, emergency response and environmental health, also asked them to brainstorm “what ‘off the wall’ solutions may be viable” if traditional equipment was unavailable.
“I realize these sound like desperate questions, but we are planning in unusual times and need to give consideration to all potential options,” Sharp wrote in the email, obtained by the AP.
On April 10, his department declared a shortage of personal protective equipment and directed health care providers to use face masks for treating multiple patients, use washable gowns and shorten hospital stays to preserve respirators. Supplies that were beyond their expiration dates could also be used.
That order remains in effect. Some health care workers report having trouble finding adequate supplies despite the replenished state stockpile.
It’s unclear whether taxpayers are getting good value for their money. Contracts show the state has paid vastly different prices for similar products.
In March, the state purchased 400, 8 ounce bottles of hand sanitizer from an out-of-state vendor for $4.69 apiece. Then in April, the state signed a contract with an Iowa company to produce hand sanitizer for a fraction of that cost: $10 apiece per 128 ounce bottles.
The state has paid between $4.64 and $19.35 for each isolation gown. Goggles have ranged from $1.12 apiece to $2.85. And disposable face shields have varied from $1.25 apiece to $3.
The state purchased 590,000 face shields directly from a Chinese exporter for $938,000, or $1.59 per shield. That shipment was to be flown from China to an Ankeny food warehouse, a March 27 purchasing order shows.
The state is buying 100,000 disposable face shields for $3 apiece from Honeycorr Acquisition LLC, a Fairfield packing and distribution company that had never made them before. CEO Nate Weaton said the $3 price was fair, saying similar items have been marketed for $5 or $7.
“We wanted a cost-competitive and cost-conscientious product and to make sure we weren’t gouging,” he said. “We think that’s where we ended up.”