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FRONTLINE: America's Medical Supply Crisis

Various N95 respiration masks at a laboratory of 3M.
Courtesy of REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi
Various N95 respiration masks at a laboratory of 3M.

Airs Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App + YouTube

FRONTLINE, Associated Press and Global Reporting Centre Probe Roots of America’s Medical Supply Crisis in New Investigative Documentary

When the coronavirus hit the U.S., countless Americans were left unprotected amid a desperate shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Why was the U.S. left scrambling for PPE and other critical medical supplies as COVID-19 first swept the country — and why do problems persist now, months into the crisis?

A new investigative documentary from FRONTLINE, The Associated Press and the Global Reporting Centre offers answers. "America’s Medical Supply Crisis" shows the unheeded warnings and explores the deadly consequences.


“This is deplorable,” says American Nurses Association president Ernest Grant. “We send soldiers into battle with the equipment that they need. We send firefighters in to fight fires with the equipment that they need. But yet we were asking nurses to do the exact same thing, but without the equipment that they needed. There's a failure in the system. I think those who are in position to ensure that the supply chain was being maintained, they failed us big time.”

Over seven months of interviewing manufacturers and government officials, analyzing records and tracking key medical supplies, AP investigative reporters Martha Mendoza and Juliet Linderman, along with producer Peter Klein of the Global Reporting Centre and his team, found opportunities stretching across several presidential administrations where that failure might have been prevented.

An overarching issue, the film finds, is a failure to grapple with the decline of American manufacturing and the resulting fragility of the supply chain between the U.S. and Asia — where masks are produced at such a low cost that U.S. manufacturers can’t compete.

When the pandemic hit, the flow of medical supplies to the U.S. plummeted, as many governments held onto PPE and tests for their own citizens.

“We’re dangerously dependent on the Chinese Communist Party for all sorts of masks, equipment, and we know that they, in terms of times of crisis, will hoard that stuff,” says Peter Navarro, a top trade adviser to President Trump, and an administration point person on responding to the disruption of the medical supply chain. 


It was the very sort of scenario that Dan Reese — whose company, Prestige Ameritech, is one of the last domestic medical mask manufacturers — has been warning about for years. In the documentary, he says both the Obama and Trump administrations refused to make long-standing commitments to domestic mask manufacturing.

“It’s easy as a politician to stand at the podium and say, ‘America is the most competitive country in the world. We have the best workers,’” Reese says. “The truth is we are not that competitive … The bottom line is China can sell masks into the U.S. market in my territory for cheaper than my raw material costs are.”

Now, months into the pandemic, the supply chain is still fragile. A recent American Nurses Association survey found that two-thirds of nurses were still reusing N-95 masks — more than half of them, for five or more days.

And there are questions about what the medical supply chain struggle portends for America’s ability to mass-produce the components, like syringes, that are needed to deliver an eventual vaccine.

Tune in or stream:

"America’s Medical Supply Crisis" premieres Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. It will be available to watch in full at and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on PBS stations and on YouTube at 9/8c.

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FRONTLINE production with the Global Reporting Centre and The Associated Press. The writer and director is Peter Klein. The producers are Peter Klein and Christine Brandt. The reporters are Juliet Linderman and Martha Mendoza. The co-producer is Kate McCormick. The senior producer is Frank Koughan. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.