Early on during the coronavirus outbreak, government health officials advised the public not to wear face masks, as they needed to be reserved for medical workers. But a new report from The Washington Post reports that at the same time, the government was scrambling to find enough masks to protect the staff serving in the White House.
In mid-March, it reportedly became apparent that there would be a shortage of personal protective equipment in the United States. To prevent government employees from being impacted by the shortage, the National Security Council turned to Taiwan on March 14 to secure hundreds of thousands of surgical masks for employees to use.
An anonymous source says that a majority of the masks went to the national stockpile for use around the country, but 3,600 were set aside for White House staff and officials.
“While the administration had detailed pandemic response plans, somehow those did not include maintaining a supply of masks for White House personnel,” the source said. “That was a lesson learned. We did look at buying some, but couldn’t find available supply.”
When Taiwan announced that it was donating masks to the U.S., it didn’t mention that thousands were set aside for the White House.
At the time, employees weren’t instructed to use the masks, though some experts within the NSC argued that they should be used by employees and the public. Two weeks later, the Trump administration began advising people to wear masks whenever they were around other people.
Since then, federal and local officials have advised using masks. On Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo mandated that all New Yorkers wear them in public.
It isn’t clear why the NSC asked a foreign government for supplies, but it illustrates the debate within the White House, with some health experts calling for mask use since the virus began to spread. Others, including President Donald Trump, have opted not to wear them.
Still, regardless of whether they are currently being used, the White House has enough supplies on hand to protect government leaders and their support staff.
“While we would never discuss the specifics about safety and security measures at the White House, the Medical Unit and Military Office have the needed supplies to execute on long-standing continuity of government plans that essential personnel are protected by and briefed on as soon as they arrive — and quite frankly, it’s ignorant, naive or intentionally dishonest for anyone to suggest otherwise,” a spokesperson said.
About three-quarters of the White House staff is currently working from home, while essential workers are still showing up in person every day.