• Donald Trump Did Nothing to Stop the Export of Respirator Masks

    David Becker/ZUMA

    The 3M mask story keeps getting weirder, and neither 3M nor the Trump administration seems eager to provide details of exactly what their dispute is about. However, it’s been widely reported that 280 million masks were sold overseas in a single day last month even though American health care workers were desperate for them. This number originates from a Forbes story by David DiSalvo, who spent a day in mid-March with a mask broker named Remington Schmidt:

    When contacting potential buyers, Remington needs two things to secure a deal with a seller: a letter of intent to purchase and proof of funds. “If you are working with a seller who has masks but you can’t quickly show proof of funds, someone else is going to buy them,” he told me.

    And I watched that happen repeatedly throughout the day. Buyers from state procurement departments and hospital systems expressed desperate need for masks, but the deals bogged down when it came to providing proof that they could commit and follow through. In the meantime, another buyer provided proof of funds and the masks were gone, sometimes within the hour.

    By the end of the day, roughly 280 million masks¹ from warehouses around the U.S. had been purchased by foreign buyers and were earmarked to leave the country, according to the broker — and that was in one day. To his knowledge none of the masks had been purchased by buyers in the U.S.

    Remington told me that his focus now is to try to sell masks to federal agencies like FEMA, responsible for securing PPE so the items can go directly to the states that will distribute to hospitals, but it’s been challenging to close a deal and the number of “middle men” in the negotiations keeps rising.

    Somebody please stop me if I’m wrong, but halting these shipments didn’t require use of the Defense Procurement Act. It required two things: (a) an executive order banning the export of masks unless approved by federal authorities² and (b) purchasing authority for FEMA to buy as many masks as it wants. You could add to that guidance from FEMA about which items US companies should and shouldn’t export overseas. These are things President Trump could have done two weeks ago with a stroke of his pen. No new legislative authority would have been required.

    So unless I’m missing something, this is all on Trump. 3M has no control over the secondary market. Only Trump does. But apparently he did nothing back when it mattered, and now that it’s too late he’s engaged in a war to make it look like someone else’s fault. That’s typical Trump for you.

    Eventually I assume we’ll get more details of exactly what’s going on here. If my take on this is wrong, I’ll update.

    ¹FWIW, this sounds high. But the precise number doesn’t really matter.

    ²This is, obviously, not something that states can do. Only the federal government can do it.

  • Who’s Losing the Most Jobs to the Coronavirus?

    As I said earlier, I don’t normally spend a lot of time on the details of the monthly jobs report. This month is an exception since people are understandably interested in the effect that the coronavirus lockdown has had. With that in mind, here’s an excerpt from the household survey:

    There are several obvious takeaways:

    • Men and women are losing jobs at about the same rate. Both groups now have an unemployment rate of 4.0 percent.
    • Whites and blacks are losing jobs at the same rate. Asians and Hispanics are losing jobs at a much higher rate.
    • The poorer you are, the more likely you are to lose your job. Among those with no high school diploma, unemployment is up 1.1 points. Among college grads, unemployment is up only 0.6 points.

    Keep in mind that these figures only go through mid-March, so they should be considered tentative. Next month’s report will include all ten million (or more) who have lost their jobs and will give us a much better idea of where job losses are concentrated.

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 3 April 2020

    This is Hilbert a couple of days ago, distracted by some kind of shiny object while he was strolling along the fence. Little does he know that our squirrel flanked him while he was staring upward and made an end run to . . . somewhere. Whatever it is that squirrels go haring off at. After Hilbert was done with his promenade he jumped over into our neighbor’s yard to provide them with some company while they are sheltering in place. What a warmhearted cat!

  • Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in March

    The American economy lost 701,000 jobs last month. We need 90,000 new jobs just to keep up with population growth, which means that net job growth clocked in at—

    Ahem. I suppose that accounting for population growth hardly matters at this point, does it? Just for the record, though, here’s the jobs chart for March:

    This is for early March, by the way. The full extent of job losses due to COVID-19 won’t show up until next month.

    And also just for the record, March was a fairly good month for wages. Average hourly wages for blue collar workers went up about 3 percent after accounting for inflation. That’s pretty good! Assuming you still have a job, that is. Most of you probably do, but there are obvious exceptions. I don’t normally bother showing job losses by category, but it’s worthwhile this time:

    The biggest job losses by far came in four areas: retail, temp services, health care, and hospitality (which includes restaurants). I’m a little surprised about the job losses in the health care sector. There must be a specific story behind this, but I’m not sure what it is.

  • Trump Wants to Cut Off Masks to Everyone But Us

    3M

    Here is 3M’s response to the presidential Twitter tantrum:

    In the course of our collaboration with the Administration this past weekend, the Administration requested that 3M increase the amount of respirators we currently import from our overseas operations into the U.S. We appreciate the assistance of the Administration to do exactly that. For example, earlier this week, we secured approval from China to export to the U.S. 10 million N95 respirators manufactured by 3M in China.

    The Administration also requested that 3M cease exporting respirators that we currently manufacture in the United States to the Canadian and Latin American markets. There are, however, significant humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America, where we are a critical supplier of respirators. In addition, ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done. If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease. That is the opposite of what we and the Administration, on behalf of the American people, both seek.

    We also continue to act on reports of price gouging and unauthorized reselling related to 3M respirators. This activity is unethical and illegal. We are working with the U.S. Attorney General and attorneys general of every state, making it clear that 3M has not and will not raise prices for respirators and offering our assistance in the fight.

    So it appears that Trump was indeed going ballistic over the fact that masks produced overseas were not all being shipped to the United States. There’s little that 3M can do about that, though.

    But it turns out there’s more. 3M also makes masks in the US for the North and South American markets. Trump apparently wants 3M to tell other countries to bugger off and confiscate the entire domestic production of masks for the United States. I assume that the “humanitarian implications” of this don’t matter to Trump, so perhaps he needs to understand that if we do this we’re making ourselves into pariahs. Nobody will ever trust products made by a US corporation again.

  • Stimulus Checks Coming Soon for Low-Income Workers

    If the IRS has direct deposit information for you, you’ll get your $1,200 stimulus payment in a couple of weeks:

    Then, starting the week of May 4, the IRS will begin issuing paper checks to individuals, says the memo obtained by AP Thursday. The paper checks will be issued at a rate of about 5 million per week, which means it could take up to 20 weeks to get all the checks out. That timeline would delay some checks until the week of Aug. 17.

    Hmmm. I suppose it’s too much to ask that they at least get the money out to the poorest folks first. Hell, knowing how they usually operate, they’ll probably—

    The checks will be issued in reverse order of adjusted gross income, meaning that people with the lowest income will get payments first.

    Oh. Well, good job.

    I wonder why they’re issuing only 5 million checks per week? Is that literally the limit of the check printers they have? Or what?

  • Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: April 2 Update

    Here’s the coronavirus growth rate through April 2. France had a big jump today and is now right on the Italian track. Spain continues to skyrocket. Britain is now above the Italian track. And the United States recorded its first day with more than a thousand deaths. On the bright side, Italy now looks like it’s definitely starting to decline from its peak.

    I’ve gotten a few questions about death rates recently. As you recall, a while back I switched from tracking cases to tracking deaths because the case numbers were too inaccurate. Now, however, there are questions about whether countries are even counting deaths accurately. And if they aren’t, how does that affect the charts?

    Not much, I think. There’s been no suggestion that different countries are counting deaths differently, nor that the counts have changed over time. It’s mostly a matter of people dying at home and not getting counted. There are also legitimate questions of what “counts” as a coronavirus death. In any case, I don’t think any of this shows up as a systematic difference either between countries or over time, so the charts are still reasonably accurate. But it’s something to keep an eye on.


    How to read the charts: Let’s use France as an example. For them, Day 0 was March 5, when they surpassed one death per 10 million by recording their sixth death. They are currently at Day 28; total deaths are at 900x their initial level; and they have recorded a total of 80.6 deaths per million so far. As the chart shows, this is exactly where Italy was on their Day 28.

    The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.

  • What’s Going On With Donald Trump and 3M?

    David Becker/ZUMA

    President Trump mysteriously invoked the Defense Procurement Act against 3M on Thursday:

    The White House didn’t explain this, and it’s a little unnerving to see Trump using the DPA in such a gleefully punitive way. It’s supposed to be a technocratic tool for coordinating production, not a way for a president to score political points on Twitter.

    In any case, this presumably has something to do with how and where 3M is shipping N95 respirator masks. But how much control does 3M have over this?

    I can’t independently vouch for this, but it sounds pretty plausible. If other countries have put export controls on N95 masks, there’s probably not much 3M can do to direct them to the US.

    Perhaps we’ll learn more on Friday if either the White House or 3M comment on this. And who knows? Maybe it will turn out that the issue with 3M is something entirely different.

    POSTSCRIPT: Either way, I’m not thrilled that Trump has finally figured out that he can use the DPA selectively as a way of burnishing his political fortunes. Matches to children, my friends, matches to children.

  • Did Our “Testing Fiasco” Really Matter Much In the End?

    Watchara Phomicinda/Orange County Register via ZUMA

    An ICU doctor writes to tell me that the problem with false negatives on the coronavirus test is worldwide:

    It’s been reported in the US, China, and Italy for a number of weeks that the sensitivity of the RT-PCR swab test for COVID-19 is not great. To put it simply, the issues aren’t specific to the US version(s) of the COVID-19 tests….We’ve known from very early on in the outbreak that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has higher affinity for receptors that are in the lower respiratory tract than it does for those in the NP/OP region like typical circulating coronaviruses. Given the dangers to healthcare workers of attaining lower respiratory specimens and the massively increased resources to do so safely, no country has moved to expectorated sputum samples outside of hospitalized patients, and even then only rarely.

    This issue was obvious and widespread to Chinese and Italian authorities who have published numerous studies that predominantly used CT scans looking for a particular pattern of lung disease that most COVID-19 patients seem to demonstrate.

    Not sure if that’s helpful or not, but this is something that physicians have rather widely understood for a number of weeks, but has not appeared to reach national leaders, which is sad.

    For the past couple of weeks I’ve been posting daily updates on the spread of COVID-19 in western countries, and one of the things that’s caught my attention is the fact that virtually every country seems to be on the same track. Some are farther along (Italy, Spain) and some still have a ways to go (France, USA), but the growth curve looks awfully similar in every case. But how can that be if every country has different testing regimens?

    Without any explanation for this, I’ve been reluctant to speculate. But perhaps the explanation is the poor sensitivity of the COVID-19 PCR test? To put it bluntly, if the test is so bad that it misses a third of all cases, how much does testing even matter? I can even imagine that widespread testing might be detrimental if it produces a big pool of people who are infected with COVID-19 but feel confident that they aren’t.

    If this is the case, it would also mean that the testing fiasco in the United States didn’t really have much effect. We didn’t “squander” two or three weeks of time. In the end, it hardly mattered at all.

    For now, consider this speculation. But I would sure like to hear from some experts about it.