Former Trump Official Won Contract To Give Masks To Navajo Hospitals. Some May Not Work.

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A former White House aide won a $3 million federal contract to supply respirator masks to Navajo Nation hospitals in New Mexico and Arizona 11 days after he created a company to sell personal protective equipment in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Zach Fuentes, President Donald Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, secured the deal with the Indian Health Service with limited competitive bidding and no prior federal contracting experience.

The IHS told ProPublica it has found that 247,000 of the masks delivered by Fuentes’ company — at a cost of roughly $800,000 — may be unsuitable for medical use. An additional 130,400, worth about $422,000, are not the type specified in the procurement data, the agency said.

What’s more, the masks Fuentes agreed to provide — Chinese-made KN95s — have come under intense scrutiny from U.S. regulators amid concerns that they offered inadequate protection.

“The IHS Navajo Area Office will determine if these masks will be returned,” the agency said in a statement. The agency said it is verifying Fuentes’ company’s April 8 statement to IHS that all the masks were certified by the Food and Drug Administration, and an FDA spokesperson said the agency cannot verify if the products were certified without the name of the manufacturer.

Hospitals in the Navajo Nation, which spans Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, have been desperate for protective supplies as the numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths have grown quickly. As of Friday, the Navajo Nation reported 4,434 COVID-19 cases and 147 deaths, a crisis that has prompted outcries from members of Congress and demands for increased funding.

Fuentes initiated email contact with officials at IHS, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency said. After the contact, the agency informally solicited prices from a handful of face mask providers and chose Fuentes of the six companies that responded because his firm offered the best price and terms, IHS said. Fuentes also benefited from government procurement rules favoring veteran- and minority-owned businesses, the procurement data shows.

Fuentes said political connections to the Trump White House played no role in his company’s selection. “Nobody referred me from the White House. It was nothing like that,” he said. “Emphatically no.”

The White House did not respond to a question about Fuentes’ contract.

IHS told ProPublica that Fuentes’ company reported that the masks were made in China, but the agency did not specify the manufacturer. Federal contracting records show without explanation that Fuentes refunded $250,000 to the IHS this month, and he said in an interview last week that he gave back money when he procured masks at a slightly reduced cost.

“We went back to IHS and said, ‘We were able to get this cheaper,’” Fuentes said. “We will never gouge our customers.”

Fuentes referred questions about the mask manufacturer and FDA certifications to his consultant, Sia N. Ashok, a business school classmate. In a phone interview, Ashok declined to name the manufacturer because it could violate the company’s contract, she said.

Ashok said the company lived up to the terms of its contract with IHS and has all the FDA certifications it needs in place.

“If the customer or IHS or anyone has any issues with anything, we would be more than happy to replace,” she said.

Fuentes’ contract price of $3.24 per mask is more expensive than the pre-pandemic rate of about $1 per mask, but far less than what some government entities have paid at the height of the crisis. Mask costs can vary widely depending on availability, demand, quality and exact specifications.

Fuentes is a retired Coast Guard officer and protege of former White House chief of staff John Kelly. He formerly served as Kelly’s military aide while he was secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Fuentes followed Kelly to the White House. In December 2018, as Kelly prepared to leave, The New York Times reported that Fuentes had told associates he planned to “hide out” in a vague role at the White House until he qualified for a Coast Guard early retirement program. Fuentes retired in January from the Coast Guard after 15 years of service. He said his retirement was for medical reasons.

He jumped into the federal contracting world in April at a time of great opportunity — and high risk. The coronavirus pandemic loosened many federal procurement rules as agencies scrambled to respond to a national emergency. But as supplies of personal protective equipment ran out and many countries restricted exports, delivering on contracts became more difficult, and agencies have wrestled with incomplete orders, cancellations and possible counterfeit goods.

N95 masks were so scarce that the FDA in April allowed the use of some Chinese masks that had not been certified by U.S. regulators. But in recent weeks, the FDA narrowed its guidance after tests indicated that some of the products were not as effective as they should be, and it tightened restrictions on the use of Chinese masks by hospital and medical personnel.

Fuentes formed Zach Fuentes LLC as the emergency regulations were evolving.

In April, the FDA authorized the use of masks made by close to 90 manufacturers in China.

But the masks made by some of those manufacturers did not pass CDC tests because they did not filter out enough fine particles. In some cases, the masks failed utterly.

This month, the FDA rescinded its authorization for the vast majority of the Chinese manufacturers, published a much smaller list of respirators made by 14 approved manufacturers and tightened the standards for evaluating Chinese masks.

Eleven federal agencies, including IHS, have reported buying either KN95 masks, or N95 masks made outside the United States, according to contract data. Of those, Fuentes’ contract with IHS is the second-largest that mentions KN95 masks specifically. The largest contract was struck by FEMA, for $3.9 million, on May 4.

Overall, IHS has spent $85.4 million to respond to COVID-19 as of May 22, signing 318 contracts with 211 vendors, according to federal procurement records. The masks provided by Fuentes went to five IHS medical facilities and to a government warehouse.

Fuentes’ new company has also received a much smaller contract from the Bureau of Prisons to provide 10,000 N95 masks for $1.31 each, according to a BOP statement to ProPublica and procurement documents.

One IHS hospital slated to receive masks from Fuentes is the Gallup Indian Medical Center in New Mexico. A doctor there, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the facility initially had a shortage of protective equipment. Conditions have improved thanks to federal purchases and donations, he said, though staffers still have to reuse masks up to five times each, he said.

“IHS facilities have sufficient quantities of N95 respirators at this time,” an agency spokesman said.

 

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Auschwitz Museum Condemns Use Of Nazi Slogan At Illinois COVID-19 Protest

The Auschwitz Museum issued a scathing attack on the use of a notorious Nazi slogan on a sign at an Illinois protest against COVID-19 safety measures.

The German phrase on the protest sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” was written in the gates at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.

It means “work sets you free,” darkly referring to starving Jews at the camp who were forced to work until they dropped dead — or were killed. The sign at the Re-Open Illinois protest Friday in Chicago also included the initials “JB,” referring to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who is Jewish.

″‘Arbeit macht frei’ was a false, cynical illusion the SS gave to prisoners of Auschwitz,” said a statement from the museum, located at the death camp site in Poland. “Those words became one of the icons of human hatred. It’s painful to see this symbol instrumentalized & used again to spread hate. It’s a symptom of moral & intellectual degeneration.”

The photo of the sign was taken and tweeted by a nurse, Dennis Kosuth, a counterprotester on the scene to demonstrate for continued safety measures to protect the public from COVID-19, The Hill reported. 

Another photo circulating on Twitter showed a sign with similar language in Pittsburgh, but was debunked by the Associated Press. This sign on display in Illinois, however, is real.

Hundreds of protesters in Illinois, most not following social distancing guidelines, called for loosening of restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Illinois reported the largest one-day spike in coronavirus cases on Friday. The state has reported more than 56,000 cases and 2,457 deaths. 

Pritzker’s chief of staff Anna Caprara said protesters armed with such signs have no standing calling for liberty. She also criticized other signs portraying Pritzker as Hitler, particularly since his family fled to Chicago to escape pogroms, another chapter in violent anti-semitism. “You can protest a policy you don’t like without being ragingly bigoted,” she noted.

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, called use of the phrase “Shocking. Shameful. Sickening.” He characterized the phrase as a “savage Nazi hoax for slave labor & gas chambers.”

Former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Illinois native Daniel Shapiro called the sign “disgusting.” 

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Susan Rice Slams Jared Kushner’s ‘Ridiculous’ Boast About U.S. Coronavirus Response

Former national security adviser Susan Rice tore into Jared Kushner on Wednesday for claiming the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak has been a “great success story.”

Kushner made his comments after the U.S. topped 1 million cases of the virus and more than 59,000 deaths.

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law appeared on “Fox & Friends” Wednesday morning to congratulate the administration on its efforts. He claimed “the federal government rose to the challenge” and predicted the country would be “rocking” again by July.

He didn’t mention the U.S. death toll ― higher than any other country in the world ― the persistently inadequate testing, shortages of critical medical equipment and the lack of preparation that have plagued the administration’s crisis response.

Rice, a former Obama White House official, told CNN host Wolf Blitzer that Kushner’s claim “would be laughable if it weren’t so deadly serious.”

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t know how anybody with a straight face can call this a great success and declare this a mission accomplished moment when more than 60,000 Americans are dead.”

Rice also noted that according to the experts, the pandemic is far from over. Citing Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose judgment she said she trusts “implicitly,” Rice said that a second wave of infections is expected for the fall.

Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN that if states ease restrictions too soon, there could be a rebound that would “get us right back in the same boat that we were a few weeks ago” and that a second wave was “inevitable.”

“So we are far from being able to declare victory,” Rice said. “And in any event, there’s no victory when the losses on the battlefield in less than two months exceed all of those through the entirety of the Vietnam War, 26-plus million Americans are out of work, the GDP is declining at a rate of almost 5%.”

With this in mind, Rice said people need to come together and make a realistic assessment of where we are. She also called for the continued implementation of steps to keep Americans safe instead of inviting a rebound by declaring premature victory and reopening businesses too soon.

 

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