Tables turned: USAID asks relief groups around the world for protective gear for U.S. use

The U.S. relief agency sends aid to groups that work in refugee camps and war-torn areas. Now it wants aid of its own — protective gear for U.S. use.
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A medical worker waits for patients at a special coronavirus intake area at Maimonides Medical Center on April 2, 2020 in New York.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

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By Dan De Luce

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government's main international relief agency has issued an "urgent request" to aid groups around the world that work with refugees and impoverished people asking them to find personal protective gear and medical supplies that could be made available to the federal government, according to an internal email obtained by NBC News.

The U.S. Agency for International Development's appeal offers yet another sign of how the Trump administration is scrambling to secure badly needed medical equipment amid shortages of gear at American hospitals due to the coronavirus epidemic. The USAID email was first reported by CNN.

It's unclear how much medical equipment the aid groups have to spare, and how the request could affect relief work with refugees and other vulnerable populations around the world. Humanitarian aid groups have already issued warnings that the coronavirus outbreak could have a devastating effect on refugees who often lack access to clean water and are living in crowded conditions.

USAID has already ordered a suspension of any shipments of personal protective equipment abroad to safeguard supplies needed in the U.S., as reported previously by NBC News and Politico.

The March 27 USAID email, titled "Urgent Request for Inventory of Available PPE and Medical Equipment Resources," asks groups that carry out USAID-funded projects overseas to take stock of all medical supplies that could be of use to the federal government in its fight against the coronavirus outbreak. The organizations were asked to fill out a spreadsheet with the relevant information and respond by the end of the day.

"USAID has been asked to identify organizations that have personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies potentially available for use by the U.S. government in response to COVID-19," said the email from Matthew Johnson, communications director at the Office of Acquisition Assistance, USAID's industry liaison. "Please review the attached spreadsheet and let us know by close of business today if you have any equipment available."

USAID and several aid groups did not immediately respond to requests for comment.