Controversy in California after governor sends 500 ventilators back to national stockpile

Counties in California have been scrambling to procure more ventilators.

April 9, 2020, 7:41 PM

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s plan to send 500 ventilators to the national stockpile on Monday in order to assist New York and other states that have been hit hardest by the novel coronavirus -- a move that caused confusion in some counties where officials have been requesting ventilators themselves.

In Riverside County, one of the worst-hit counties in California, public health officials are predicting the country will reach its ventilator capacity by April 26.

As of Wednesday, Riverside County still had 305 of its 512 ventilators available, but based on projections the county is "expecting a surge of patients" in the coming weeks, public information officer Brooke Federico told ABC News.

"It did catch us off guard," Kevin Jeffries, Riverside County's first district supervisor, said -- especially when "you see 500 ventilators have been shipped out and our request through the state and feds have not been filled and our attempt to purchase them on the market has not been successful."

With 178 COVID-19 cases and 32 deaths, the county put in a request to the state for 500 ventilators on March 29, but it was denied. They then requested an additional 1,000 ventilators on April 1 and purchased 1.1 million N95 masks that have not yet arrived.

"We understand the state is running a very large operation in which they need to triage their requests and priorities," Federico said, but "an explanation from the state of why the request was denied was not included."

Beyond asking for state and federal assistance, Riverside County is also putting in a $12 million bid for 330 ventilators, but officials are concerned that FEMA might take possession of the units in an effort to centralize medical resources.

On Wednesday, Santa Clara County issued a new order requiring businesses and individuals to report large inventories of ventilators and personal protective equipment. The one-time disclosure, due by April 15, is being requested to help the county prepare for a potential surge. As of Thursday, the county had 1,442 COVID-19 cases and 47 deaths.

"While we have requested State and Federal resources, it is important to know the volume of PPE or ventilators that already exist in our local community," Dr. Jennifer Tong, hospital surge capacity branch chief of the County of Santa Clara Emergency Operations Center, explained in a statement.

PHOTO: A ventilator and other hospital equipment is seen in an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park, March 31, 2020, in New York.
A ventilator and other hospital equipment is seen in an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park, March 31, 2020, in New York.
Misha Friedman/Getty Images, FILE

Newsom addressed the criticisms in a press conference Thursday, pointing out that the state is currently using only 31.89% of the hospital systems' existing ventilator capacity, excluding the ventilators procured by the state.

He also said the ventilator stockpiles are pre-positioned strategically throughout the state so they can be deployed to those in need within hours.

County Supervisor Jeffries said he did receive an email from the governor Thursday morning reassuring him that the state will provide his county with the necessary equipment when the time comes.

"I do understand the compassionate act of the governor to help those in need right now versus those who will need it in a week or two weeks," Jeffries said, but he also stressed that the potential rise in demand for medical equipment in the county is worrisome.

"We really need somebody to commit to us in the next couple of weeks with the ventilators we need," he said. "We do not want to be another New York."

What to know about the coronavirus:

Tune into ABC at 1 p.m. ET and ABC News Live at 4 p.m. ET every weekday for special coverage of the novel coronavirus with the full ABC News team, including the latest news, context and analysis.