There wasn't much left in Microsoft President Brad Smith's bag of tricks by the time he picked up a phone late last Saturday and called the White House.
Smith already had spent the prior week helping his overseas teams negotiate the release of 240,000 desperately needed N-95 surgical masks from an undisclosed foreign government so they could be shipped to the United States in anticipation of an onslaught of hospitalizations caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. But after subsequently being flown overseas by Federal Express to a distribution center in Memphis, the masks sat untouched for 48 hours awaiting a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspector to arrive and sign them onward.
Smith was getting worried, knowing additional logistical challenges lay beyond that one transfer point. And like many Americans bracing for the worst of the pandemic, he wasn't sure when increasing numbers of patients with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, could start overwhelming local hospitals.
"The FDA was short-handed, and so those (masks) were stuck in Memphis from last Thursday to Saturday," said Smith, adding it was already 8 p.m. ET when he phoned Washington, D.C. "I actually reached out directly to the White House staff - specifically, people who work for the National Security Council ... and they were able to scramble the FDA and get everything released by first thing Sunday morning."
The masks were trucked to Florida, then flown to Dallas, where - one canceled flight and a 24-hour delay later - they'd been rescheduled on two American Airlines cargo planes due in Seattle early Wednesday.
Getting the masks here was one of numerous challenges faced by Microsoft in arguably the most unique procurement endeavor in company history; one that began paying dividends Monday when 15,000 eye protection goggles, 850 medical caps, 850 protective suits and 120 infrared thermometers arrived in the first of several expected shipments.
For Smith, the masks were the most critical acquisition - he'd been told the state could require 160,000 per day - and he was impressed by the quick federal response to his Saturday night plea.
"We are seeing a lot of that," he said. "People are just doing whatever it takes to keep supplies moving. Even though you sometimes read about the partisan arguing ... more frequently we're seeing people put differences aside to get critical medical supplies to where they need to go."
By Friday, Microsoft expects an additional 15,000 eye goggles, 35,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and 2,000 disinfectant wipe containers to arrive for donation. They'll be picked up by the state's Department of Enterprise Services at Microsoft's warehouse in Redmond and forwarded to the highest-need areas.
While the technology company of 140,000 employees doesn't make medical supplies, it has a vast global supply chain that can be leveraged to acquire things most can't.
Microsoft had spent about $4 million acquiring supplies as of Tuesday. Washington is getting 1.6 million N-95 masks from the national stockpile and Microsoft has plans to import 500,000 more if needed.
Some of the items, if unused or needed more elsewhere, could be shipped to other states.
Smith said the company kept a small stockpile of surgical masks and emergency supplies at its facilities in worldwide in case of earthquakes or other disasters. At its main campus in Redmond, it had upped earthquake preparedness plans the past year and acquired more such supplies.
"But we've certainly never purchased them in this kind of quantity," he added.
By January, when COVID-19 was ravaging China, Microsoft put its procurement capabilities to work in getting such items for that country and others.
"Over the last couple of weeks, we've obviously pivoted," Smith said. "We've been very focused on obtaining medical supplies for Puget Sound."
Now, with the coronavirus apparently slowing in China, Smith has worked with that government and others to bring stockpiled items here. He wouldn't say who sold Microsoft the masks so as not to "put that country on the spot."
"In every country, we work with the local government to make sure they're comfortable having these supplies leave," he said. "Obviously, while we're trying to serve the people of Puget Sound we have to be very sensitive to that."
The suppliers are typically ones Microsoft buys goods and services from with a line on medical equipment or other items.
"Imagine how many cleaning supplies are needed for buildings that have 60,000 people in them every day," Smith said. "Part of this is procurement of cleaning supplies, which we've been getting as well to make available for facilities here."
And frankly, he added, that's expected of a company Microsoft's size.
"It's a reflection of the number of people we employ and the breadth and sophistication of our operations," he said. "It's a role that we've long played in being supportive of the region."
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