As Maryland officials raced to meet the state’s urgent need for medical supplies over the last two months, two deals gained national attention: The governor’s procurement of 500,000 COVID-19 test kits from South Korea and a $12.5-million contract for ventilators and masks from a company started by two Republican fundraisers.
On Wednesday, state lawmakers grilled an official in Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration over whether the tests from South Korea are actually being used. They questioned whether officials have been too quick to approve these deals.
The state received an offer on March 29 for ventilators and masks from Blue Flame Medical. Three days later, the state signed a contract to buy 1.5 million N95 masks and 110 ventilators.
The state canceled the contract earlier this month, after the items didn’t arrive when state officials say they were expected. However, in published documents, an attorney for the company said they had until the end of June.
Speaking over video chat with the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday, state Secretary of General Services Ellington Churchill said the contract was approved during a mad dash for supplies that were suddenly nearly impossible to find.
“The success of our office to urgently source in contracts, as well as transport materials to Maryland during the month of March and April was deemed a matter of life and death,” Churchill told the legislators.
But lawmakers questioned whether the state vetted Blue Flame Medical before awarding the $12.5-million contract.
Committee Chair Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, noted that the company, founded by two Republican political consultants, was incorporated in Delaware on March 23, about a week before the contract was signed.
“The two principals, until March 23, had no experience with procuring PPE material,” Pinsky said. “Their only experience was with raising money for national elected officials in Washington.”
Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, highlighted a Politico story about the company’s origins published on March 27, two days before the state says the company reached out. Lam suggested the story would have appeared in “a basic Google search.”
The company was referred by a member of Hogan’s “team,” Churchill said, but procurement officials were not paying much attention to the individuals running the company.
“No conversations were held with the governor's team specifically concerning giving a contract to Blue Flame Medical based on any relationship,” he said.
Lawmakers also pushed for the whereabouts of the 500,000 test kits Hogan bought from the South Korean firm LabGenomics.
Lam, a physician who specializes in public health, showed the group paperwork submitted to the Food and Drug Administration that makes clear the kits did not include several tools needed to use them.
“If you're missing the swabs, and you're missing the reagents, and you're missing the testing equipment, I'm not sure what else is left that could have been procured,” Lam said.
He said he knows the state must be missing necessary supplies because he hasn’t seen evidence that the tests are being used.
Churchill referred questions about the tests to the state Department of Health.
But at a press conference later on Wednesday, Hogan said that when he announced the test kits, he said there were parts missing.
“We’ve been in the process of acquiring all of those things,” he said. “We announced two weeks ago that we got swabs and the transport tubes from the federal government, finally. We created our own reagents. And we’re ramping up lab capacity.”
Hogan said beginning this week, the tests can be processed at a University of Maryland lab the state invested in.