CALIFORNIA – Watching the coronavirus pandemic unfold sparks a range of emotions for Dr. Howard Backer, a retired ER doctor who once served as California’s chief medical consultant on emergency preparedness and the state’s lead on pandemic planning.

“This is really pretty much the worse-case scenario that we planned for,” Dr. Backer said via a Skype interview from his Northern California home.

In 2006, under then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dr. Backer worked for the California Department of Public Health and helped develop a massive state stockpile of emergency medical resources. At the time there was an active threat of an avian flu.



“What we had is what you see everybody scrambling for now,” said Dr. Backer. “We had 2400 portable ventilators. We had 51 million of the N95s, 3.7 million courses of anti-viral medications.”

The state also had three 200-bed mobile hospitals, each the size of a football field, equipped with a surgery ward, ICU and x-ray equipment.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s administration spent more than $200 million on the emergency preparedness initiatives.

“He is an action figure and he wants to be prepared in a crisis,” said Dr. Backer. “What we had stockpiled never would have gotten us through this whole event, but it would have at least given us that initial output and initial attack.”

In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown took office facing a $26-billion deficit. The programs and emergency supply stockpiles were placed on the budget chopping block.  Dr. Backer and some of his colleagues within the public health department tried to argue against the decision to defund the supply maintenance.

“We knew we’d be scrambling to replace these resources when an event did happen and that’s happened now,” Dr. Backer said. “There were a lot of competing demands on the budget and we did not prevail in our arguments.”

When the stockpile was dismantled, some of the supplies and equipment were sold or donated to hospitals and local health departments.  

The L.A. County Department of Public Health told Spectrum News it received more than 200 ventilators from the state during that time.  Those ventilators are now being serviced and refurbished for use in the fight against Coronavirus, according to officials.




A lack of stockpiles and supplies across the U.S. has led some states to request help from the federal government. Fortunately, California has been in a position to offer some supplies, like ventilators, to other states in need. But hospitals workers across the state have expressed a lack of enough protective gear, including N95 masks.  

In a press conference on Saturday, President Trump laid blame on state governors for equipment shortfalls.

“Frankly many of the states were not prepared for this so we had to go into the federal stockpile. But we’re not an ordering clerk,” President Trump said.

Dr. Backer says this pandemic will certainly renew interest in rebuilding stockpiles
and encourages people to think about solutions right now instead of placing blame on any current and former state leaders.

He feels encouraged by Governor Gavin Newsom launching a task force to increase testing and supplies and tapping into the private market, including meeting with tech executives, to find ways to meet the demand.

“This will hopefully tighten the relationship with the private and public sector and create new ways to use our private partners to help support us during a big disaster,” said Dr. Backer.  “Fortunately there are a lot of smart people thinking about this right now.”