By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. officials said on Thursday they would distribute a stockpile of personal protective equipment, including 192,000 N95 respirator masks, which they seized this week from an alleged hoarder.
The departments of Justice (DOJ) and Health and Human Services (HHS) said the equipment had been seized by a task force set up to crack down on coronavirus-related hoarding and price gouging.
The material included 130,000 surgical masks, 598,000 medical grade gloves, surgical gowns, disinfectant towels and bottles of hand sanitizer and spray disinfectant.
It will be distributed to health authorities in New York and New Jersey, the U.S. epicenter of a pandemic that has so far killed nearly 5,000 Americans.
Local officials have been scrambling to secure protective gear, which is in short supply. An emergency stockpile maintained by the U.S. government has been nearly exhausted.
Officials said they seized the supplies from Baruch Feldheim, a 43-year-old Brooklyn man arrested on March 30 for lying about his activity and coughing on FBI agents who questioned him.
Feldheim’s defense lawyer, James Moriarty, denied the charges and said his client had not yet entered a plea.
According to court documents, Feldheim offered to sell around 1,000 N95 masks and other materials to a New Jersey doctor for $12,000, which federal authorities said was approximately a 700 percent markup over the normal prices.
Investigators said Feldheim told the doctor he could pick up the materials at an auto repair shop in Irvington, New Jersey.
The doctor told investigators the auto repair shop contained enough materials, including hand sanitizers, antiseptic wipes and surgical supplies, to outfit an entire hospital.
FBI agents also observed people walking away from Feldheim’s residence with boxes or bags that appeared to contain medical supplies.
When federal agents questioned Feldheim outside his home on March 29, they said he coughed on them and told them he had COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, according to a court affidavit.
The seized material will be delivered to the New Jersey Department of Health, the New York State Department of Health and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Daniel Wallis)