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David Parker gets tested for COVID-19 at the MIRA bus in El Jebel on Thursday, April 16, 2020.(Kelsey Brunner, The Aspen Times)

Cory Gardner was brainstorming ways to help secure coronavirus tests and medical supplies for Colorado last month when he realized he had a way to help: his Asian contacts.


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Domestic supply chains were tapped and Colorado wasn’t getting all the critical equipment it requested from the federal government.

“The governor was always on the phone with me saying, ‘Cory, we need more protective equipment. Cory, we need more ventilators. Cory, we need more masks. We need more tests,’” said Gardner, Colorado’s Republican senator, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia. “We started reaching out to Taiwan to the foreign minister, to the South Korea embassy, to Japan, to Vietnam.”

The result: 100,000 tests from a South Korean company, SolGent, and just as many masks from Taiwan. Both have already arrived in Colorado.

International competition for supplies, such as ventilators, masks and tests, has been intense since the coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic. Wealthy countries boxed out poor ones and U.S. states, unable to get what they needed from within America, were jostling with each other and the federal government for whatever they could scrounge together. 

Boxes of coronavirus tests from South Korea on their way to Colorado. (Provided by Cory Gardner)

Colorado has found a way to leverage relationships, like Gardner’s, to break into the global supply chain. Gov Jared Polis’s Innovation Response Team, staffed by paid employees and hundreds of volunteers, is chasing down any lead it gets to find ways to open doors with manufacturers, 

If Joe or Jane Coloradan says their relative knows someone in Asia with a connection, the team runs it down. At least one member of the task force has begun learning Korean phrases to better position himself to make deals. 

While most of the connections end in dead ends, some have panned out or opened new doors.

A “global free-for-all” 

“We are in an unprecedented time where we need more of this stuff than we’ve ever needed before because of the unique nature and the incredible infectivity of the virus,” said Sarah Tuneberg, who leads Colorado’s innovation response team, the panel in charge of procuring supplies. “And because it’s global, the entire world needs more than we’ve ever needed before and all at the same time, which breaks down our usual emergency management strategies around sharing.” 

Disasters are typically contained to a state or region. So when, say, a tornado hits Alabama, other states can pitch in supplies. When those states face disasters, Alabama returns the favor. 

But coronavirus is in all 50 states and 186 regions and countries throughout the world. So the “sharing is caring” system that normally follows calamities has been pretty much tossed out the window.

“There’s incredible competition,” Tuneberg said, “and it is very difficult.” 

Polis said earlier this month that at one point he considered sending a team to China on a state-chartered 747 jumbo jet to place orders, test supplies on the spot and quickly bring them back to Colorado.

“We look at everything, because one of the challenges is these are suppliers we’ve never worked with before,” Polis said. 

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters at the Colorado Convention Center on Friday, April 10, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The governor has credited Gardner with making introductions in Asia and also says he has worked with CEOs who have long-term relationships with manufacturers in China and other parts of Asia. He’s also tapped the consulate general of Japan in Denver.

But working with overseas companies in a market suddenly flooded by governments desperate for supplies isn’t always easy. Colorado has run into fraudulent suppliers and scams, state officials say.

“We have put in place incredible safety, security, fiscal strategies that protect the state of Colorado,” Tuneberg said. “We recognize that we are operating using taxpayer dollars.”

Polis said he’s had middle-of-the-night calls trying to run down leads in Asia. He has called the ordering environment “crazy,” a “global free-for-all” and a “dog-eat-dog world.”

Gardner says he, too, has had late-night conversations. During one call with American businesses leaders and representatives in Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, he accidentally woke his children. “I finally get the connection to work. I’m talking. My wife comes down. She’s like ‘Cory! Be quiet. The kids are trying to sleep,’” he said. 

MORE: The inside story of the unprecedented airlift delivering coronavirus supplies to rural Colorado hospitals

Working behind the scenes

Most of the work to procure supplies has happened behind the scenes. And part of the reason for that is because Colorado doesn’t want to tip its hand.

In a news conference on Wednesday, the governor said he hasn’t been talking publicly about the state’s orders for tests and masks because so many of them have fallen through and also because he’s worried someone else — namely the federal government — could swoop in and steal Colorado’s supplies. 

The governor made national headlines a few weeks ago when he went on CNN and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency purchased ventilators Colorado was in the process of trying to buy. 

FEMA has denied this and Polis has declined to elaborate. But President Donald Trump soon after announced that at Gardner’s behest he was sending 100 ventilators to Colorado, which has prompted accusations of political favoritism from Democrats. Gardner, who is facing a difficult 2020 reelection bid, has brushed off the charge.

Democrats, including Polis, have argued that the Trump administration wasn’t well enough prepared for coronavirus. Critics have also said the federal government should be doing more to help states get supplies instead of leaving them to battle with each other. 

Gardner, a Trump ally, admits the situation could improve. 

“We have to do better and better every minute of our response,” Gardner said. “That’s the mission I tasked my office with. We have to fight for what Colorado needs and we’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer. If we strike out in one place, we’re going to look in another place.”

And despite the criticism he’s leveled against the Trump administration, Polis has praised the work Gardner has done. “He’s been extremely helpful in making introductions for the state of Colorado to suppliers in Vietnam, South Korea,” Polis said during a virtual town hall. 

U.S Sen. Cory Gardner, right, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, left, sit together at an event in Aurora on July 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polis’ staff said they, too, were working with South Korea to secure the 100,000 tests. The governor’s office says Gardner was crucial in getting the testing supplies through U.S. customs, where they got snagged — twice — before the full shipment got to Colorado on Thursday. 

And a top Korean official says the reason Colorado got the tests amidst all of the requests their country has received from across the globe is because of their familiarity with Gardner. 

“Sen. Gardner has been chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia. That’s why my ambassador has very close contact with him for the last five months since he arrived in Washington, D.C., as a new ambassador,” Moon Seoung-hyun, South Korea’s deputy chief of mission in the country’s Washington embassy, said in a phone interview last week with The Colorado Sun. “That’s how all this story goes.” 

The only other state to get direct access to testing supplies from South Korea so far is Maryland, Seoung-hyun said. He said Maryland received tests because its first lady, Yumi Hogan, is Korean-American.

The South Korean test kits will go a long way. Right now Colorado’s state public health lab only has the capacity to process 1,500 tests each day. Private companies can handle many times that number. Colorado public health officials say they haven’t determined yet how the 100,000 tests will be used.

And the deal has continued to help Colorado. Through the testing connection, Colorado has also found a company through which to order 150,000 swab kits, which are in short supply and are crucial for testing. They are due to arrive on May 8.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....