The shortage of personal protective equipment and medical supplies could last for years without strategic government intervention, according to health and manufacturing industry officials.
Officials said logistical challenges will continue seven months after the coronavirus hit the US as flu season approaches and some state emergency management agencies prepare for a surge in Covid-1
Though the clutter isn’t as prevalent as it was this spring, hospitals have reported shortages of supplies ranging from specialty beds to disposable isolation gowns to thermometers.
“A few weeks ago we had great difficulties getting the hygiene towels. They just couldn’t get them, ”said Dr. Bernard Klein, executive director of the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, near Los Angeles. “We actually had to make our own.”
The same dynamic has impacted a number of critical supplies in his hospital. First masks, then isolation clothes and now a special bed in which nurses can lay Covid-19 patients on their stomachs – devices that help workers with a job that is otherwise possible for six people.
“We saw whole families come to our hospital with Covid and several members were hospitalized at the same time,” said Klein. “It’s very, very sad.”
The test supplies were running low as the Latino community, which is primarily served by Providence Holy Cross, was badly hit by Covid and even nearby hospitals were able to conduct 15-minute tests.
“If we had a more coordinated response with a partnership between the medical field, government and private industry, it would help improve the supply chain in the areas where it is most needed,” said Klein.
Klein said he is expected to deal with equipment and supply shortages later in 2021, especially as flu season approaches.
“Most people focus on these N95 respirators,” said Carmela Coyle, CEO of the California Hospital Association, an industry group that represents more than 400 hospitals in one of the hardest-hit states in America.
She said the supply issues related to Covid-19 will persist through 2022.
“We were faced with a lack of isolation clothing and face protection that you now see in public places. Any piece that is scarce or unavailable poses a risk to both patients and health care workers, ”Coyle said.
At the same time, trade associations representing manufacturers said it had been difficult to convince customers to switch to American suppliers.
“I also have an industry that is only operating at 10-20% capacity that can make PPE in our own backyard but has no orders.” said Kim Glas, CEO of the National Council of Textile Organizations, whose members make reusable cloth garments.
The manufacturers in their organization have made “hundreds of millions of products,” but without long-term government contracts, many are concerned about investing in equipment to increase economies of scale and will eventually need to lower prices.
“If there continues to be an upward trend in Covid-19 cases, not just in the US but worldwide, you can see these supply chains collapse again,” said Glas. “It’s a health security issue.”
For the past two decades, personal protective equipment has been delivered to healthcare facilities in lean supply chains, just like toilet paper has been delivered to grocery stores. The chains between large manufacturers and end users were so efficient that no goods had to be stored.
However, the supply chain collapsed in March when large Asian PPE exporters locked or shut down materials as demand grew exponentially. As a result, healthcare facilities were roughly in the same position as regular grocery shoppers trying to buy large quantities of a product they had never had in store before.
“I am very concerned about long term PPE [personal protective equipment] Bottlenecks for the foreseeable future, ”said Dr. Susan R Bailey, president of the American Medical Association.
“No question about it, the situation is better than it was a few months ago,” said Bailey. However, many health organizations, including their own, have difficulty obtaining PPE. Practicing in an allergy clinic with 10 doctors, Bailey was faced with a minimum of 10,000 masks when trying to order N95 respirators.
“We saw no evidence of a long-term strategic plan for the manufacture, acquisition and distribution of PSA,” said Bailey. “The supply chain needs to be strengthened dramatically and we need less reliance on overseas goods to manufacture our own PPE in the US.”
Some products are now being manufactured in the USA again. However, the factories are not expected to be able to meet demand until mid-2021.
“A lot has been done in the last six months,” said Rousse. “We’re mostly out of the hole and planted the seeds to make the United States self-sufficient,” said Dave Rousse, president of the Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry.
In 2019, 850 tons of the material used in disposable masks were made in the United States. Around 10,000 tons are expected to be produced in 2021, which corresponds to around 80% of demand. But PPE is a set of items – including gloves, clothing, and face protection – not all of which have had the same success.
“Thermometers are becoming a real problem,” said Cindy Juhas, chief strategy officer of CME, an American distributor of health products. “They even expect a problem with needles and syringes for the amount of vaccines they have to make,” she said.
The federal government’s efforts to tackle the supply chain have largely failed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency responsible for responding to Covid-19 told congressional interviewers in June that it was “not involved in distributing PPE to hotspots.”
However, an initiative led by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner called Project Airbridge flew PPE from international suppliers to the US at taxpayers’ expense, but was discontinued. In addition, the government has not responded to the AMA’s demands for more distribution data.
Klein is probably one of the best at surviving such disturbances. It is part of a 51 purchasing power hospital chain and among institutions, dealerships have priority in selling supplies. Difficulties persist in hospitals as well, as the buyers had to search directly for manufacturers due to bottlenecks, often through a quagmire of companies that were created overnight.
Now retailers are being called not only by their traditional customers – hospitals and nursing homes – but by almost all walks of life. First responders, schools, clinics, and even food companies are now buying medical equipment.
“There will be a lot of other bottlenecks that we haven’t even thought about,” said Juhas.