OKLAHOMA CITY — The life-saving N95 masks always were the hardest to find.

Gino DeMarco estimates spending countless hours chasing down potential leads and sorting through hundreds of pitches. Some dubious brokers were trying to persuade him that they had magical abilities to conjure the filtration masks.

Controlling the manufacturing market for personal protective equipment, China’s provincial governments quickly confiscated sought-after medical supplies for its own battle against COVID-19.

So when Oklahoma’s so-called PPE czar received promising leads on masks, DeMarco caught a quick flight to Miami lest he be undercut or undersold by another hungry shark.

Oklahoma officials estimate they’ve spent thousands of hours over the past two months trying to wrangle PPE in a dog-eat-dog market filled with broken promises. They described shady deals and battles with more robust state and international governments all elbowing for the same shipments.

The cost of medical masks, gowns and gloves, meanwhile, skyrocketed as supply chains dried up, and states found themselves scrapping for basic medical gear to protect health care workers. The scramble opened the door to predators or opportunists hoping to capitalize.

“Unlike other states, we haven’t actually lost a penny on anything,” DeMarco said.

Split decisions

Early on, Oklahoma leaders made a bold, but potentially risky, choice — in the majority of cases, they would not pay a dime until brokers or manufacturers could deliver.

“That turned off tons of people,” he said. “They were surprised that, generally speaking, we weren’t going to pay in advance.”

The Miami offer for two big stores of N95 masks quickly went south. DeMarco landed in Florida and demanded to examine the warehoused shipment, telling brokers a truck would arrive in an hour to pick it up.

“They didn’t have an address where we could look at the product,” he said.

DeMarco, who used to work in the oil industry, said he thought it was crazy when oil topped $100 a barrel.

Then the pandemic happened.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “The modern supply chain has never seen anything like it.”

As of May 13, Oklahoma had spent about $46 million to bolster its protective gear supply. Of that, $20 million has been delivered thus far.

DeMarco said the state issued around $80 million in purchase orders, but canceled $33 million because people were unable to deliver or there was a bad actor involved with a questionable background.

Millions of masks, gloves and gowns are en route via water, air or ground.

As many as 10,000 to 20,000 face shields are arriving each day.

Oddly enough, there wasn’t ever a bidding war. Instead, companies demanded someone arrive on site immediately, inspect the product and wire the money, DeMarco said.

“If you have the opportunity to buy, that opportunity was very, very short,” DeMarco said. “If you wanted to buy, you had to a make a decision very, very quickly. It translated into short decision times more than anything.”

State governments typically move slowly and deliberately, so that fast pace represented a new hurdle amid the pandemic.

‘Very hot commodities’

Early on, DeMarco decided to hire a logistics company to help sort through the chaos.

“That turned out to be one the best decisions we made,” he said.

Garrett Bowers, CEO of Ponca City’s Bowers Trucking and Logistics, said he still remembers the day DeMarco randomly called. DeMarco asked Bowers to help leverage his company’s experience with government contracting and logistics to move millions of dollars of medical supplies back to Oklahoma.

Calls started coming in at all hours. Bowers’ team hustled to find truck drivers who could respond with about an hour’s notice, particularly to port cities in Florida, California and New York.

“Supplies would arrive,” Bowers said. “They were spoken for, but if for any reason someone had made a better offer those supplies would be sold out from under them before they could get a truck. It was absolutely chaotic for awhile.”

Some shipments also vanished upon arrival.

“These were very hot commodities and pretty shady deals were happening at these ports and warehouses where people were losing whole pallets of face masks,” Bowers said.

One of Bowers’ employees living on the West Coast went to those ports daily to personally count all of Oklahoma’s arriving pallets. Another employee was tasked with tracking all the packages on the east coast. Both helped the state wade through the cumbersome customs process.

Truckers were anxious to help, particularly when they learned they were shipping supplies to benefit hospital workers. They drove through the night, stopping only for fuel, to deliver truckloads filled with $2 to $3 million worth of medical supplies.

Oklahoma’s successful logistics strategy didn’t go unnoticed. Soon, Bowers’ company also was coordinating for Texas, Mississippi and Illinois.

“I really do think this was an Oklahoma success story,” said Jerome Loughridge, secretary of health and mental health.

“This was well and truly the most difficult circumstance,” he said. “We weren’t merely competing with other states and municipalities.”

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the state was able to source sufficient amounts of protective gear, which also allowed the state to reopen earlier, he said.

When those final shipments arrive, DeMarco said Oklahoma will be in pretty good shape.

“My No. 1 takeaway?” he said. “You can’t make this stuff up. The things that have happened are so incredibly crazy that I never thought I would witness this type of stuff. It’s a good book or screenplay for somebody to write. Looking back, half of it would be funny.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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