Puerto Rico Gov Gives No Explanation Why Inexperienced Companies Were Sourcing COVID-19 Tests
Gov. Vázquez: If Trump Was Offered as Many Tests as Quickly, He Would Do It, Too; Not Even the U.S. Gov’t Could Get Ventilators Like They Were Being Offered Here
SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced confirmed Wednesday the sequence of events in which at least eight officials from different agencies participated in the purchase of more than one million rapid COVID-19 tests, but could not explain how, with so many eyes on the transaction, ended up choosing two companies with no experience in the healthcare industry, and paying much more than market price.
Vázquez Garced arrived at the conference with documents, most of which many journalists had already obtained through their sources, to ensure that the process had been “correct and transparent.”
However, the governor did not disclose the controversial purchase orders until the scandal that linked the disgraced companies as donors to the majority New Progressive Party (NPP) that had access to party leadership and government officials.
“I guarantee that we have [sic] all our efforts so that things are done well,” the governor said.
Vázquez Garced began telling her account by saying the Department of Health, without specifying who in it, was the agency that requested rapid tests to detect COVID-19.
On Tuesday, when asked by Caribbean Business, one of the controversial entrepreneurs, Ricardo Vázquez of 313 LLC, stated that someone in the Health Department had contacted the company Zogen in Mexico, distributor for America of the test known as Nova Test, to request information.
When told that 313 LLC was the contact in Puerto Rico, Adil Rosa, a former administrative assistant of the secretary of Health, who contacted him to handle the request.
At the conference, it was also confirmed that the former director of the Maritime Transportation Authority, Juan Maldonado, a lawyer for Apex Contractors LLC, the second company chosen to purchase the tests, offered equipment and tests to the director of the medical task force, Segundo Rodríguez, via text messages. In the message, according to Rodríguez himself, Maldonado stated that he contacted him through the former adviser to former Gov. Pedro Rosselló González, Tito Laureano.
Rodríguez assured that he never made any request for the contract to be awarded to Apex, beyond referring them to contacting Health Department staff.
The governor said she did not know how exactly the department requested the quotes for the purchase of the tests, but she did confirm that two companies, 313 and Apex, answered “the call” and were contracted.
“Quotes were received, among which were 313 and Apex, which were the ones that submitted proposals,” Vázquez Garced said.
She stated that the proposal of both companies was evaluated and approved by the Health Department; the Emergency Management Bureau, which made one of the purchases; the Office of Management and Budget; the Department of the Treasury; and by members of the coronavirus task force. She admitted that the purchase was discussed at the task force meetings with her but not details.
“All of them evaluated it and it was a decision that was taken together. Nobody gave an instruction, everyone participated,” she said, insisting that once the Health Department gave the go-ahead, the others did not object because “it is the Health Department’s expertise.”
When asked about the reason for choosing companies that had no experience in the health industry, the governor said that “if it was a construction company, I believe that it had previously served the Health Department in other requests that they had made.”
“So it was up to them to make that determination. In the end, they all evaluated it and all authorized it,” she stressed.
The transaction for the purchase of one million tests from Apex was canceled Friday after it did not meet the contract’s March 31 deadline to deliver the tests.
The governor was asked who thought that a purchase of one million tests that had to be brought from Australia would be on the island, with no problems, in only five days. She replied that that was the company’s problem.
“In an emergency process, there are [ways]. How they were really going to do it was something we didn’t have to evaluate…. I wanted the tests to be here…. If President Trump was now told they can get him 280 million [tests], he is going to do it,” she added.
As for why the tests were purchased at much higher than market prices, she said, “We were competing with the world.”
“We know that it happens many times that when there is too much demand, obviously the offer
“We know it happens often that when there is too much demand, obviously the offer goes up in terms of the price. In this case, there were some quotes that had a higher cost. These were $38 [million] and there were others of $40 [million]. In terms of why that price, they evaluated it at the time. For the health and life of a Puerto Rican…for the person who was analyzing it, they could not question whether the life of a human being cost $1 million or cost less,” Vázquez Garced said.
Counterattacks Quiñones de Longo
On Wednesday as well, the governor rejected that people close to her had tried to pressure the former acting Health Secretary Concepción Quiñones de Longo to purchase a number of ventilators.
The former acting secretary of Health denounced that an employee of the La Fortaleza governor’s office, Marisol Blasco, called and forced her to sign a contract, within 20 minutes, to buy ventilators that would arrive in 16 months.
The governor acknowledged that, although the ventilators’ contract that Quiñones de Longo initially refused to sign indicated that the equipment would arrive in 16 months, the supplier later said via email that it was an error and that the equipment would arrive within 16 weeks.
“When [Quiñones de Longo] told the people of Puerto Rico that they wanted to force her to do that, she knew it was wrong,” said the governor, noting that the company, which she did not identify, has worked with the Health Department for years.
Vázquez Garced also denied Quiñones de Longo remarks that her resignation was prompted, in part, because she was excluded from the meetings between the coronavirus task force and the governor, pointing out that there are photos on social media that confirm Quiñones de Longo’s presence in the meetings. Vázquez added that even an adviser to the former acting secretary participated in meetings.
Vázquez Garced pointed out that the first people to approach her about purchasing medical equipment amid the emergency were lawmakers, mayors, politicians and other business people.
“Everyone was selling ventilators. Not even the United States government could get ventilators like they were offered here in Puerto Rico,” the governor said.
Vázquez Garced acknowledged that there are several probes into the process by different agencies and welcomed anyone who wants to investigate. Although she has not been interviewed by federal authorities, she stated being “totally” available. “All investigations are welcomed. What we want is a clean government, with transparency and that things are done well,” she said.
She also assured that she has not favored people linked to the NPP, nor political donors in the government’s procurement processes. “I do not favor anyone,” she said.
Vázquez Garced indicated that criticism of her administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis will not “unfocus” her.
“We have to be very careful when we see and hear people trying to unfocus us. In this administration I will not allow anyone to do incorrect things, I will not allow it of anyone,” she stressed. “We are not going to cover up anyone; we are not going to cover up anyone here. We are going to do things as they should be done here.”