While not all of this spending is coronavirus-related, it’s easy to see how some vendors have found new opportunities with the pandemic.
In the early days of the pandemic, when Massachusetts was swamped with coronavirus cases and short on supplies, the feel-good story of April was how New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft worked with state and Chinese officials to bring millions of masks halfway around the world to Commonwealth first responders via the Patriots’ team jet.
While many of those masks turned out to be of a lower quality than expected, it was still an influx of personal protective equipment orchestrated and partially paid for by a local magnate who has also auctioned off one of his Super Bowl rings to raise money for coronavirus-related charities.
But Robert Kraft and his son Jonathan are also businessmen. And by redirecting one of their companies to make face shields, they’ve made more than $7 million in sales to the state under relaxed FDA and state bidding requirements.
Robert and Jonathan Kraft used their shipping connections to get masks for Massachusetts at a crucial time—the federal government had just intercepted more than 3 million masks the state was set to buy. In the pinch, the Krafts coordinated with Gov. Baker to get 1.4 million pieces from China, with nearly a million of those marked for Massachusetts health care workers.
Baker had claimed the masks were N95s, the standard necessary for health care worker use. As it turned out, many were KN95s, a different mask that was allowed for use by an emergency FDA authorization. Health care workers said KN95s were of lesser quality, according to a Boston Globe report, and tests of KN95 masks commissioned by the state and overseen by MIT found they did not perform as well as N95s.
As for the funding, Baker told the Globe that the Krafts agreed to pay $2 million to help buy the masks, and the paper later reported that the state also spent $2 million on the masks. Otherwise, many of the details were kept under wraps. In a statement to the Globe, the Krafts said, “The governor has shown great leadership in helping our courageous health care heroes with the acquisition of 1.4 million FDA and CDC approved medical masks. We were privileged to have partnered with him to provide the logistical support to expedite the delivery of the masks and we are happy to split the cost to lessen the Commonwealth’s financial obligation in these unthinkable times.”
The state has spent millions on medical equipment during the coronavirus pandemic, but tracking the specifics is difficult—according to a WBUR report, some payments for masks do not show up on the state comptroller’s website and have not been honored by vendors. But even a rough look at that comptroller database shows significant spending—more than $85 million for medical and surgical supplies to specific vendors since March 2020.
While not all of this spending is coronavirus-related, it’s easy to see how some vendors have found new opportunities with the pandemic. The Salem, New Hampshire-based Body Armor Outlet, which had mostly sold clothing and other gear to law enforcement groups before the coronavirus, according to state records, has had more than $30 million in sales for medical and surgical supplies since March. The Holbrook-based Lane Printing Company had small sales in printing and posting before pulling in $2.5 million for medical supplies.
And Unified2 Global Packaging Group, which has no prior deals with the state until May 2020, has two big sales—one for $2,993,350, and one for $4,251,219.
The Sutton-based Unified2 is one of the Kraft Group’s several packaging companies. Robert and Jonathan Kraft are listed as managers on corporate documents. The company was created in 2018, and is “is a one-stop packaging supplier and leader in custom protective packaging,” according to the Kraft Group’s website. Unified2 sells foam, wood, and molded fiber packaging, among other packing goods—and since 2020, it sells the “protection solutions” of transparent partitions, face masks and face shields as well.
Unified2 did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
A spokesperson for the state’s COVID Command Center said the payments to Unified2 were not tied to the Krafts’ April shipment of masks, but for shipments of 600,000 and 850,000 face shields (both work out to about $5 per shield). The shields were sent to MEMA for distribution to state and local groups, the spokesperson said.
MEMA did not respond to a request for information about the distribution of Unified2’s face shields.
Like the KN95 masks, face shields have also been given an emergency FDA authorization for use in health care settings. Through emergency authorizations, the FDA “may allow unapproved medical products or unapproved uses of approved medical products to be used in an emergency to diagnose, treat, or prevent serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions caused by chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense threat agents when there are no adequate, approved, and available alternatives.”
As long as the shields meet certain standards, they can be sold for health care use. Unified2 notes on its website: “The product has not been FDA cleared or approved; The product has been authorized by FDA under an [Emergency Use Authorization] for use by healthcare providers as personal protective equipment. … This face shield is intended for single use and single user.”
The company’s paper-based face masks contain a similar disclaimer: “Our disposable face masks follow the CDC recommendations for facial coverings during day-to-day activities to help slow the spread of COVID-19. These disposable face masks are not medical-grade surgical masks or N95 respirators.” The site notes that a patent is pending for the masks in the US, Canada, Europe, Mexico, and South Africa.
And just as the FDA’s emergency ruling means less oversight on products used in an emergency, the state bought Unified2’s face shields through less restrictive purchasing mechanisms than usual. Under state law, departments must put large purchases out to bid, but Baker declaring a state of emergency in March allows the Operational Services Division to waive regulations and contract directly with vendors like Unified2 for emergency supplies without going out to bid, a state Administration and Finance spokesperson said.
The Krafts spent $2 million on the masks from China, but have sold $7.2 million worth of face shields to the state alone so far. With no end to the pandemic in sight, there could be far more sales in store.