The news, which broke early Thursday, resembled a plot pulled straight out of a summer blockbuster: The Kraft family had deployed a New England Patriots team plane to China to deliver about one million desperately needed N95 respirator masks to health care workers in Massachusetts.
Yet the story is as alarming as it is heartwarming, underscoring a harsh reality as the coronavirus pandemic spreads ever faster around the United States. Governor Charlie Baker and his counterparts throughout the country are forced to go to extraordinary lengths to secure life-saving medical equipment in the absence of a coordinated federal response.
“This is not how it is supposed to work,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Melrose, a member of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team. She described herself as “very grateful” for the Kraft family’s generosity and help getting the critical gear, but said “what we need is a coordinated federal system."
The red-white-and-blue-wrapped 767 touched down at Logan Airport around 6 p.m., bearing the first of two shipments of masks the Baker administration purchased from Chinese suppliers. The journey began, in the governor’s telling, roughly two weeks ago, when the federal government confiscated a shipment of more than 3 million N95 masks at the Port of New York and New Jersey that Massachusetts had arranged to buy.
"I just started reaching out to anybody and everybody I knew, trying to find some other path,” Baker recounted in an interview.
Leveraging the Boston area’s universe of globally connected companies and academic institutions, the governor reached out to people with connections not only in Asia, but Europe and elsewhere. Eventually he found some people who thought they could help the administration navigate making a big purchase from Chinese manufacturers.
“The question then became: how do you actually make the pickup work,” Baker said, noting it would probably be impossible with traditional commercial air transport.
“Who did I know that had a plane?” he recalled thinking. And he called his longtime friend Jonathan Kraft, president of both the Patriots and the Kraft Group — and the chairman of the board at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The Krafts were terrific. They were a phone call away, and immediately went to work on the logistics associated with this, and did not stop until they could make it happen,” Baker said at his daily news conference Thursday. He praised both Jonathan and his father, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, along with Chinese officials and members of his administration focused on developing and implementing the state’s response to the pandemic.
“This was a total team effort on every level.”
The Kraft family also agreed to pay $2 million toward some of the cost of purchasing the masks, Baker told the Globe.
Baker’s victory in the state’s intense hunt for masks and other protective gear, or PPE, follows weeks of increasingly public frustration from the normally even-keeled governor. His administration has hit numerous roadblocks thrown up by the federal government, which has repeatedly snatched supplies from the states’ hands and directed governors to find their own source.
Even now, Baker administration officials are still waiting on the federal government to deliver promised help. Earlier this week, Baker announced that the state had ordered 1,000 ventilators from the federal government and that he expected the delivery by the end of this week. On Thursday, Baker said Massachusetts still hasn’t gotten any of the equipment and he no longer expects them by the end of the week.
Baker didn’t criticize the federal government, however, when asked what the unusual delivery by the Patriots plane says about the state of the federal pandemic response. And he said the government lent some help by designating the flight as a humanitarian effort. As an example, that federal blessing helped the Patriots plane “hopscotch” through Alaska on the way to and from China, allowing the state’s governor to cut through some red tape to let that happen, Baker said at the news briefing Thursday.
On the other hand, Baker didn’t go out of his way to praise the federal government, either.
“I think the fact that we’re dealing with a global pandemic that clearly the world wasn’t prepared for has put a tremendous amount of pressure on everybody and anybody who is seeking out protective equipment, medical equipment, all kinds of things,” Baker said in the interview. “And I hope we all learn from this.”
President Trump has pushed back hard against any criticism that the White House isn’t doing enough.
“Massive amounts of medical supplies, even hospitals and medical centers, are being delivered directly to states and hospitals by the Federal Government. Some have insatiable appetites & are never satisfied (politics?). Remember we are a backup for them," he wrote on Twitter Thursday morning.
The “complainers," he continued, should have “been stocked up and ready long before the crisis hit. Other states are thrilled with the job we have done.”
A day earlier, Trump confirmed reports that the federal stockpile of masks and other personal protective equipment was nearly depleted.
Regardless, the Trump administration’s handling of critical supply shortages has drawn plenty of criticism. Numerous elected officials have called on Trump to use the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to make test kits, ventilators, and protective gear to address the shortages. So far, Trump has only invoked the Cold War-era law sparingly. Meanwhile, there’s an ad hoc effort among US manufacturers to pivot to making much-needed gear.
“We can’t thank the governor and the Krafts enough for their heroic efforts to bring badly needed PPE to Massachusetts,” said Dr. Eric Dickson, chief executive of UMass Memorial Health Care, based in Worcester. “To date, we have been disappointed in the federal government’s ability to get critical supplies to the states that need it most.”
“For me, this is a result of just abysmal leadership,” state Representative Jon Santiago, who is also an emergency room doctor at Boston Medical Center, said of the scramble states must engage in to secure critical supplies. “Ideally you want some kind of federal coordination . . . but what we’ve seen from our president is a persistent lack of leadership and miscommunication and that doesn’t breed confidence.”
Baker, standing in the massive Delta Airlines hangar at Logan Airport and flanked by large shipping pallets of protective equipment that had been unloaded from the Patriots plane, choked up with emotion Thursday evening as he thanked the Kraft family and other organizations for organizing the delivery.
“For the many, many dedicated front line workers across this state who are battling COVID-19," he said, “this gear will make an enormous difference.”
Baker said earlier at his daily briefing that “nearly one million” of the masks on the Patriots plane would go to front-line health care workers in Massachusetts, while 100,000 masks would go to Rhode Island. Robert Kraft personally purchased 300,000 N95 masks that he plans to provide to Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor, whose state is an epicenter of the pandemic.
A second shipment with the rest of the Massachusetts order, which totaled more than a million masks, will come at a later date.
“Multiple organizations across the public and private sectors, all of which were in lockstep with Governor Charlie Baker’s visionary leadership, worked together to execute this mission with the purpose of helping save lives,” Robert Kraft said in a statement. "I truly hope that in doing so, we can in some way inspire others to find creative ways to give more in support of our doctors, nurses and first responders. It’s nice to care for those who provide such compassionate care for us.”
Dan Adams of the Globe staff contributed to this story.