When people are desperate, they are more inclined to do dumb things. To Mississippi’s credit, it avoided that trap when it went shopping for personal protective equipment in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Greg Michel, the executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, was recalling the other day to reporters what it was like a couple of months ago when it looked as if hospitals and other health care providers might run out of the masks, gloves and gowns they use to shield doctors, nurses and other employees from the new coronavirus. There were also predicted shortages of ventilators, the machines that help patients breathe whose respiratory system has been severely compromised by the infection.
States and nations were competing against each other for the equipment, vendors took advantage of the situation by jacking up prices, and scam artists came out of the woodwork to offer their bogus services.
Michel and the rest of the team looking for this vital equipment were feeling stressed. One supplier they were counting on for masks supposedly had a shipment on a dock in China, just looking for a way to fly it to the United States. The shipment got intercepted, but Michel is uncertain by whom — possibly by the Chinese government or even the U.S. federal government, which was working to replenish its own stockpile.
Along came some other overseas vendors claiming to have supplies but requiring prepayment for them. Mississippi early on set a policy that it would only work with vendors who would not expect payment until the goods were received. It stuck by that policy, even as supplies got dicey.
The state is looking good because it did.
Other states panicked and are paying the price for it. The Clarion Ledger, citing other news media sources, noted a couple of glaring examples: New York is now trying to recover $69 million it paid for ventilators that never arrived; Maryland is out $12.5 million on undelivered masks and ventilators.
Mississippi didn’t let its desperation get the best of its judgment. As a result, it didn’t get swindled on the $20 million it has spent so far.
The state can feel good about that.
But not so swift on jobless claims
Although Mississippi appears to have done well procuring medical supplies during the pandemic, another critical aspect of dealing with the crisis has not gone so well: processing unemployment claims.
There have been numerous reports of delays in getting the money out and ungodly long times of being left on hold when trying to talk with someone at the Mississippi Department of Employment Security.
A contractor from Columbus told the Clarion Ledger that he spent 27 hours on hold with MDES over a recent two-week span. He is still waiting on the money.
Part of the problem, of course, is the unprecedented volume of claims created by the broad shutdown of the economy. Where Mississippi might, in normal times, have seen about 1,000 new unemployment claims a week, it has been averaging more like 25,000 a week since mid-March. Although MDES has added staff and hours to try to keep up with the deluge, the agency is still overwhelmed.
This isn’t good. If the unemployed can’t get the help for which they qualify, they can’t pay their bills. This further depresses the economy and potentially produces more unemployment, not to mention the additional worry it creates for the jobless.
It’s imperative that Reeves and his appointees fix the problem.