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AP investigation: States spent billions on medical supplies

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State government reporter David Lieb, based in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Report for America data team reporter Camille Fassett, San Francisco, took the lead in obtaining and analyzing public records that disclosed state coronavirus-related spending that had largely been kept from the public. The reporters filed Freedom of Information Act requests in all 50 states seeking purchase order records to determine how much was being spent on what items, which suppliers the states were using and how the spending compared across the states.

The findings revealed that overall the states spent at least $7 billion on medical gear in the early months of the pandemic, a massive amount that had not been reported until AP’s investigation.

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Pallets of medical personal protective equipment are unloaded from a China Southern Cargo plane upon its arrival in Los Angeles, April 10, 2020. – AP Photo / Richard Vogel

Even lawmakers in most states did not know the scope of spending, much of which was inflated by competition between states and huge price markups for routine items. Governors described a Wild West-style marketplace for personal protective gear, ventilators and other medical equipment, but most of them did not disclose how much they were spending or who the vendors were. The records showed that hundreds of new suppliers popped up overnight, some of them profiting nicely from the new market in personal protective gear.

The project reflected a signature goal of the AP news department this year: to “connect the dots” across the states for our U.S. customers in a way that only AP can.

After months spent analyzing the state-by-state information, the data team made all the information available in an easy-to-use format for AP members and for our own state reporters. In addition to the national stories, more than a dozen AP reporters wrote state sidebars, receiving prominent play online and in print. One of those stories called out the governors of New York and New Jersey for their administrations’ lack of transparency; those were the only two states that did not provide the detailed spending breakdown sought by the AP. Two days after the package moved, the New Jersey governor promised transparency and said the state would release all its spending information.

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