Manufacturers with no verifiable credentials. Distributors demanding payment up front. Orders cancelled without explanation. Months of waiting for shipments to arrive.

Ten weeks into the pandemic, Philadelphia is still contending with a gaping shortage of personal protective equipment. Officials allocated $85 million of coronavirus relief money last month, but less than a quarter has been spent so far — most of it trying to land some elusive PPE.

Even when successful, records show that PPE orders placed back in March still haven’t arrived on the city’s loading docks.

Three orders for protective gear are over two months behind now, according to purchase documents from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. The department is still waiting on separate shipments of 2,000 procedure masks, 3,000 surgical and 2,500 isolation gowns. Two additional orders for test swabs and test transport kits are more than six weeks behind.

Public records also indicate that orders remain outstanding on 15 of the largest 20 orders of PPE the city has placed since March.

Jeffrey Kolakowski, spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Management, which is handling supply orders for all city agencies, said they’re not giving up until it’s a guaranteed “no” from the vendor.

Timelines have been pushed back for a number of reasons: manufacturing delays, demand, export issues — and because the federal government gets first dibs for orders from U.S. manufacturers.

“Our order is not being fulfilled until that entire large order is fulfilled,” Kolakowski added. “Given that everyone else is ‘in line’ with us, it is difficult to estimate timelines and we are hesitant to give up on anything because there are only so many ‘lines’ we can get in — especially with China stopping exports of certain mask types to the U.S.”

N95 masks and surgical gowns remain the city’s biggest need.

The explosive demand for protective equipment has spurred a quasi-black market economy in which vendors jockey to score large deals with governments and healthcare systems. In several well-documented cases nationwide, irreputable vendors have made big promises for N95 masks and then didn’t deliver.

“Every county in every state is competing for these things, every institution,” Justin Harlem, the Health Department’s PPE liaison, told Billy Penn this month. “The list is endless.”

Philly’s policy is to not pay for orders until the shipment is received — with the exception of one vendor that the city has worked with regularly.

“Vendors say they want half up front and half before delivery,” said Managing Director Brian Abernathy. “We haven’t engaged in that.”

Philadelphia has spoken with some questionable suppliers, he noted. In some cases, officials couldn’t confirm the legitimacy of the manufacturer or distributor, so they walked away from the deal. The situation is bad enough that the city is getting creative. By way of a substitute for surgical gowns, officials are trying out a few types of “improved ponchos.”

“We’re not shy about begging at this point,” Abernathy said. “We’re not borrowing or stealing yet, but it has been challenging, to say the least.”

Back in March, complaints exploded from every corner of city government about the lack of protective gear and sanitizing products to help essential workers. On the bright side, Abernathy said the city has a better success getting fabric masks and hand sanitizer.

He’s not aware of any city agencies that don’t have the supplies: “It’s not all dire straits…but none of this is ideal.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...