By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An emergency stockpile of medical equipment maintained by the U.S. government has nearly run out of protective gear that could be useful to combat the coronavirus pandemic, according to two officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The near-exhausted supply includes masks, respirators, gloves, gowns and face shields, the officials said. A small amount of gear has been set aside for federal first responders, according to one of the officials, both of whom requested anonymity to discuss the matter.

The U.S. Strategic National Stockpile aims to provide medical supplies during emergencies so severe they cause shortages. But states across the country have called on the federal government in recent weeks to send them large quantities of gear to help hospitals deal with surging cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The United States leads the world in confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 188,000 infections and 3,873 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, also said on Tuesday that the stockpile was empty, calling it a “disturbing” development.

President Donald Trump contested the idea that the stockpile was “empty” during a White House news conference, saying that equipment was going directly to those in need – a more efficient process.

“We’re having them brought ideally from the manufacturer directly to the hospital or state where it’s going” Trump said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency took control of the stockpile management earlier this month and has been distributing supplies to states, according to one of the DHS officials.

FEMA spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said the agency knew in its planning for the virus that the stockpile alone would not meet the needs of states, adding the federal government would “exhaust all means” to find supplies.

Litzow also said that an economic stimulus bill passed by Congress last week included $16 billion to build up the stockpile.

FEMA said that as of Saturday, 26 million surgical masks and nearly 12 million of the more effective N95 respirators had been taken from the stockpile and delivered to public health officials around the country, along with millions of face shields, surgical gowns and gloves.

In addition to protective gear, more than 8,000 ventilators had been distributed from the stockpile, according to FEMA. Trump said on Tuesday the federal government had 10,000 additional ventilators “ready to go,” but did not specify whether they were part of the stockpile.

As the reserve supplies have dwindled, FEMA officials have sought to track down whatever protective medical equipment they can find available for purchase overseas, looking mostly to suppliers in China and Malaysia, according to the two DHS officials.

“Not only are we buying what they have to sell, we’re buying their next batch,” one of the DHS officials said.

(This story refiles to fix typographical error in paragraph 12)

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Peter Cooney)