One day after the state’s top health official acknowledged problems with the first COVID-19 test kits that Maryland purchased from South Korea, a chorus of critics said Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) could have headed off controversy by simply acknowledging problems with the test kits when they arose.
Instead, Democratic state lawmakers and the state’s comptroller said on Thursday that the governor’s stubborn defense of the tests created an environment of suspicion.
In testimony before the Board of Public Works on Wednesday, acting Maryland Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader said nearly all of the 500,000 tests that Seoul-based LabGenomics sold to the state for $9.5 million last spring were returned to the manufacturer unused.
The Washington Post reported on Nov. 20 that the tests could not easily be used because the instructions and materials they came with did not match those given emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.
Schrader also called the tests “clunky.”
The first batch of test kits were replaced, but only after the state forked over an additional $2.5 million.
Although he told WBAL-TV (Channel 11) investigative reporter Jayne Miller about the swap during a phone interview in July, Hogan has vigorously rejected even the suggestion of a problem with the tests. As recently as last month he told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, “They worked great. They were using them all over the country. We were using them.”
Schrader’s comments, elicited during questioning from Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) at the Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, were seen as undercutting the governor’s steadfast defense of a purchase he and his wife Yumi Hogan spent weeks negotiating.
“I’m concerned about the fact that there was a lack of transparency and accountability and openness as far as describing what exactly happened to the tests,” Franchot said in an interview.
“And I would support the legislature and other folks continuing to review and audit exactly what happened to the first batch of 500,000 tests.”
An announced candidate for governor in 2022, Franchot serves alongside Hogan and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) on the three-person Board of Public Works.
Hogan’s purchase of the South Korean tests in April made international headlines, drew criticism from President Trump and is featured prominently in the governor’s new memoir, “Still Standing: Surviving Cancer, Riots, a Global Pandemic, and the Toxic Politics That Divide America.”
The book describes the challenges he and other governors faced battling both the pandemic and a White House whose response has been widely panned.
Franchot and the other critics who spoke out on Thursday said they had great sympathy for the panicky environment officials in Maryland and other states found themselves in as they clawed for supplies, tests and ventilators.
But they said it would have been far better if Hogan had been more candid about the issues that arose with the first set of test kits.
The Senate’s only physician, Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), said the administration could have “moved past” the issue “fairly quickly” if the obstacles had been disclosed in real time.
“People would have given them some leeway back in May had they had been forthright with some of the challenges they had with trying to procure these tests,” Lam said. “I think this is another case of where the coverup is worse than the crime.”
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said, “We’re in a period where there’s a lot of trial and error. There is no simple playbook for this. So if someone tries something and it doesn’t work, I think we have to give them some space for that.”
But he said the whole episode has been marked by a failure to disclose important information.
“The governor was on TV — national TV and local TV — lauding this great success of these Korean tests and how they were going to save lives — and it was a sham,” Pinsky said.
Pinsky’s panel held a public hearing over the summer after concerns began to surface about the South Korean tests and a controversial PPE contract the state entered into with Blue Flame LLC, a newly-formed firm with ties to two Republican political operatives.
Lawmakers were largely dissatisfied with the responses they received from the head of the Department of General Services, which handled the procurement on behalf of the Department of Health.
But it is unclear what action, if any, legislators will take.
The Office of Legislative Audits, which is conducting a review of the emergency purchases the state has made since the pandemic began, told lawmakers this week that it too has struggled to get information from DGS and the Health department.
In a Dec. 1 letter to Pinsky and Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard), the head of the Health and Government Operations Committee, auditor Gregory Hook said OLA “has experienced some difficulty in obtaining timely information from certain State agencies that we deem necessary for our examination.”
Hook also said he and his staff were “somewhat taken aback” when information OLA requested about the test kits popped up in the Washington Post story. Auditors had requested the same material weeks earlier but had not received it, he wrote.
Schrader offered a different take on Wednesday, telling the board “we’ve answered a lot of these questions in detail.”
“We’ve given them all of our records, so there’s been a full disclosure on this process,” he added.
Franchot and others also questioned why the state had to pay extra to get tests that functioned properly.
“I still am confused as to why — when a bad product was provided to us, or a product that was not as advertised — in order to swap it out, we had to pay an extra $2.5 million,” he said.
Schrader said it was “a very legitimate question” and that he is trying to piece together what happened.
“We were under pressure, and we were negotiating with the manufacturer, and the manufacturer was not willing to just replace the tests,” he said. “They felt they were entitled to some remuneration.”
Lam said he had no clue what Schrader meant when he called the tests “clunky.”
“Either they work or they don’t,” he said.
The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
While Hook, the auditor, expressed hope that agency officials would step up their cooperation with his office’s review, Lam said he is concerned “the pandemic will end by the time this audit is over, and then they’ll move on. I think that’s disturbing.”