WASHINGTON — “Project Airbridge,” the medical-supply delivery program championed by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, is being essentially grounded, according to coronavirus task force documents obtained by NBC News.
The program, created to speed the overseas air shipment of medical supplies that would take longer to ship by boat, became a lightning rod for criticism because of its unorthodox use of federal funds to underwrite shipping costs for private companies, the massive no-bid contracts it delivered to those companies and its failure to deliver all of the goods the White House credited it with.
On Thursday, the Unified Coordinating Group, a set of senior leaders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Health and Human Services Department who work on the coronavirus response, decided to stop scheduling “Project Airbridge” flights — except those carrying protective gowns — after Friday, according to a summary of the meeting, which was held at FEMA headquarters.
The coordinating group also decided to continue with 31 remaining flights and “discussed how the … program has served as a mechanism for providing mutual benefit to health care workers, manufacturers and the public,” according to the summary obtained by NBC.
Medical workers on the front lines are worried about a resurgence of infections, which could make a current shortage of personal protective equipment worse. Robert Farmer, a senior FEMA official working on the response, told the group that Project Airbridge could be re-initiated “if urgent needs arise,” according to the meeting notes.
While the coordinating group has decision-making authority for the coronavirus response effort, its moves can always be overruled by the president at any time.
House Democratic chairmen have asked the administration to provide information on the program’s contracts, flights and delivery of goods. The summary reveals no discussion of the political heat the program had drawn, but instead chalks up the termination to an absence of need.
“The decision to ramp down flights is based on demand signals and indications that the health sector has enough support to allow for companies to transition back to regular transport methods,” according to a summary of the private meeting at FEMA’s headquarters obtained by NBC News.
The wind-down comes at a time when front-line responders around the country and their representatives say that they don’t have a stable supply of personal protective equipment to ensure they can do their jobs without contracting or spreading the virus.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an email to NBC News that now is not the time for the federal government to terminate expedited sourcing of personal protective equipment.
Last week, the union — which represents the second-highest number of nurses of any labor organization in the country — announced that it had secured batches of equipment from China to distribute to hospital workers after a nearly two-month effort to find vendors, vet the goods, comply with Chinese and American regulations and secure air transportation. Unlike the medical-goods suppliers that were part of Airbridge, the union had to pay the costs of bringing in equipment. Still, Weingarten said the need for goods is immense.
“On top of downplaying the virus’ threat from Day One, and flagrantly ignoring workers’ dire need for PPE, it’s outrageous that one of its only remaining initiatives to secure supplies has been scrapped rather than fixed and ratcheted up,” she said.
“Every day, our members are heroically trying to stop the spread of this virus without the basic masks, gowns and face shields they need to protect themselves,” Weingarten said. “It is a life-and-death fight, and we must treat it like one. This administration never misses a moment to congratulate itself, but its actions speak louder than words.”
Project Airbridge offers major corporations full federal funding for air shipments of goods in exchange for the right to keep 20 percent of the haul for the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile and to direct the distribution of half of the remaining stock. The companies are assured that their masks, gloves, gowns and other materials will pass customs easily, while the White House, working through the coronavirus task force, ends up with the power to route 60 percent of the equipment.
The program, which relied on fast-track contracting procedures available because of the national emergency, had drawn scrutiny after news reports from NBC News, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and others about its operations — including complaints from state and local governments that protective equipment they were expecting had been rerouted and a Washington Post study showing it hasn’t delivered as many items as White House officials say.
A White House spokeswoman did not reply to NBC News’ request for comment on the decision to wind down the program. Kushner has called the overall White House coronavirus response “a great success story.”
More than 80,000 people have died in the U.S., and there are signs that the pandemic continues to spread at increasing rates in metropolitan and rural areas outside of original hot spots. But the White House has been working to transition responsibility for the response away from the task force and to states and existing federal agencies.
On April 27, as Trump rolled out his plan to hand off as much of the coronavirus response to the states as possible, he said testing was “not a problem,” and on May 6, the day before the task force decided to shut down Project Airbridge, he contradicted a nurse who told him that the availability of protective equipment was sporadic but “manageable.”
“Sporadic for you, but not sporadic for a lot of other people,” Trump told Sophia Thomas, president of the National Association of Nurse Practitioners, at an Oval Office event honoring National Nurses Day, adding that “I have heard that they are loaded up with gowns now.”
Gowns are the lone exception in the termination of the Project Airbridge program because, as the meeting summary notes, there are “current critical shortages.” The participants in that meeting, according to the summary, included FEMA Director Pete Gaynor, Adm. Brett Giroir, who works on the task force from his post at the HHS department, and members of the president’s National Security Council staff, who were patched in by video conference.