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Millions of N95 Masks NYC Ordered Weeks Ago for Public Hospitals Still MIA

Nurses protest a lack of protective measures during the coronavirus outbreak outside the Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx.
Nurses protest a lack of protective measures during the coronavirus outbreak outside the Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx, April 17, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Nearly 13 million virus-blocking N95 and similar face masks ordered in March for the city’s public hospitals and other emergency services have still not arrived as medical staff at Bellevue and other facilities plead for protective supplies.

Of the nearly 34 million masks contracted for between March 6 and April 11 by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, only 637,760 had been received as of Friday, according to the department.

Also still missing are at least 2,000 ventilators purchased last month, toward which City Hall paid $9 million — even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced plans to ship hundreds of surplus ventilators to other states combating coronavirus.

None of the two million N95 masks secured in a March 25 contract with a New Jersey company called Digital Gadgets have been delivered, according to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which signed the $8 million deal.

Out of a March 28 deal for six million similar KN95 masks with the same firm, just 137,760 have come in so far, DCAS reports.

The Digital Gadgets masks are “designated as medical and are intended for use by Health + Hospitals,” a DCAS spokesperson told THE CITY.

The Health and Hospitals Corporation told THE CITY it has 745,000 N95 masks on hand.

Mayor Seeks ‘Consistency’

In all, a review of city contract records indicates, vendors have delivered N95-type masks in just two out of 14 DCAS emergency contracts made between March 6 and April 11.

And only one company, Tivuna Systems Inc., has produced its goods in full, providing 500,000 KN95 masks in a deal signed by DCAS on April 2.

Most of those companies, including Digital Gadgets, had never before done business with the City of New York. Under an emergency order issued March 16 by Mayor Bill de Blasio, those contracts and companies bypassed standard reviews by the city contracts office and comptroller.

“Estimated delivery dates are constantly shifting due to overall demand and supplier manufacturing capacity,” said Nick Benson, the spokesperson for DCAS. “There is not a fixed delivery date for these or most of the COVID-19 related orders.”

On Sunday, de Blasio hinted at a news conference of troubling delays in delivery of crucial supplies.

“We have a huge number of orders out around the world that if we started to see a little more consistency on the deliveries, we would be in much better shape,” he said.

For weeks, nurses have railed against the dangerous conditions inside the city’s 11 public hospitals where they say they’ve been forced to care for a wave of virus patients without proper protective gear.

Nurse Michelle Shaw said she contracted the coronavirus while treating people at Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx.
Nurse Michelle Shaw said she contracted the coronavirus while treating people at Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx, April 17, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

At a news conference Friday organized by the New York State Nurses Association, Michelle Shaw, a nurse at HHC’s Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx, said she had to fight to get a face mask — even after she’d tested positive for COVID-19 and returned to work following quarantine.

“I came back. It took me two and a half hours to get a mask. I said, ‘Listen people, I’m positive. I am here to fight the good fight we are fighting,’” she said.

On Thursday, she was given a mask — and said she was told “once I got this mask, I could not get another mask for another week.”

Dollars Without Delivery

Digital Gadgets has an unusual profile for an emergency medical gear supplier, among a group of city contractors that also include a Brooklyn-based sock-and-underwear importer and a Florida tax firm.

The New Jersey electronics dealer has traded in laptops, headphones, hoverboards and other electronics. Its founder and CEO, Charlie Tebele, and his family together contributed at least $44,750 to de Blasio’s mayoral and presidential campaigns and related political action committees.

In total, Digital Gadgets signed emergency contracts totaling nearly $119 million with the city, agreeing to supply protective masks and medical equipment to combat coronavirus.

The first mask order from Digital Gadgets cost $8 million, for 2 million N95s — placing the cost at $4 per mask. That’s higher than pre-pandemic prices, but in line with many available offers as international bidding wars broke out over protective gear.

An example of an N95 respirator mask.
An example of an N95 respirator mask.
Lunx/Shutterstock

City comptroller records show a $9.1 million payment to Digital Gadgets on March 31, representing 10% of $91 million agreed to for 2,000 Aeonmed VG70 ventilators and 200,000 “breathing kits” — none of which have been delivered to the city to date, according to DCAS.

Tebele did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office previously told THE CITY there was no connection between Tebele-tied campaign contributions and the emergency equipment purchases.

A spokesperson for City Comptroller Scott Stringer urged strong monitoring of medical-equipment contractors.

“The city must balance the urgent need for life-saving supplies during this pandemic with the oversight and accountability New Yorkers deserve,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, Stringer’s press secretary.

Canceled Ventilators

City Council Investigations Committee Chair Ritchie Torres told THE CITY he is pursuing legislation to establish a special inspector general to oversee pandemic-related procurement.

“As a policymaker, I have a few questions,” he said. “One is, if a vendor has failed to supply the equipment required by the contract, why has DCAS not canceled the contract?”

In fact, DCAS has already nixed a few that failed to deliver.

While DCAS awaits delivery of the 2,000 ventilators from Digital Gadgets and another 200 from Pipeline Medical LLC, it has canceled orders from three other vendors, citing insufficient inventory for $171 million worth of orders from Reef Holding 1 LLC and Florida-based Nations Fast Tax & Accounting.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that New York state will be sending 100 ventilators to aid New Jersey, following a pledge to ship a 150 to Maryland and Michigan combined.

“We’re going to be okay equipment-wise, unless things change dramatically,” Cuomo said when first announcing plans to move ventilators out of state.

New York City, meanwhile, is looking to local manufacturers that have stepped up to produce face shields and gowns for hospital workers.

Said de Blasio earlier this week in hailing the growing assembly lines: “We want to make sure that, God forbid we were in a tough situation going forward, we had as much of our own supply as possible.”

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