PPE shortage could become a challenge in case of another pandemic, expert says

With vaccinations causing COVID-19 cases to drop, one U.S. hospital president is warning the country may not be adequately prepared for another pandemic.

Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and chief executive of University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, was asked to speak to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week.

He said that while the nation has learned a lot, it’s not where it needs to be. One of the biggest problems he noted was the availability of resources, specifically personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

“For decades, our nation has struggled to appropriately focus on the strategic national
stockpile of essential supplies and medication,” he said to the senators.

“While it is tempting to point fingers, the fact of the matter is that the failure to maintain the country’s strategic national stockpile was a longterm oversight that has spanned many decades.”

In an interview with WTOP, he said those limited national stockpiles led to hospitals like his having to search for and use new providers in an attempt to get supplies as the pandemic grew, often with poor results.

“We did end up ordering from suppliers that we had never seen before or heard from before and that wasn’t always a good outcome because some of the products we received were defective, or didn’t meet the medical need or weren’t as advertised,” Dr. Elnahal said.

While he encouraged making sure the nation’s stockpile is maintained, he also said the country needs to pay more attention to where it’s sourcing its supplies.

During the pandemic, the supply chain often dried up when other countries, who were making the protective gear or other necessary medical items such as ventilators and medications, didn’t ship them out.

“Other countries, who normally supply the bulk of these items, nationalized the supply chain and made sure that they weren’t exported when they were facing the worst of the pandemic in their own countries,” Dr. Elnahal said.

“If we don’t have that mindset, and other nations, that again already have a more robust supply chain than us, continue to embrace the mindset to make sure they have enough supplies to treat their own people, then we’re going to be even worse off going forward.”

Additionally, he contends if more of the supply chain were based in America, it would be easier to have oversight not only to make sure the items are being made for American medical personnel, but also that they are the correct items and made of the proper quality.

He said there have been some great steps made over the past year, including reforms on the state and national levels, as well as a supply chain coordinator that has been appointed by the Biden administration.

Also, because the pain of the worst of the pandemic is still fresh in many minds, he said currently most hospitals and those in the medical industry have a stockpile.

For example, his hospital currently has a 90 day supply of all the PPE they need. The struggle, he said, will be in maintaining those supplies.

“Supplies expire and you have to continuously replenish those stockpiles,” he said.

Tight budgets, particularly in institutions with thin margins, which he said are often those located in minority communities, could make it hard to sustain proper supply levels.

He worries many hospitals will not have the financial ability to keep their stockpiles up and will instead fall back on their old ways of keeping supplies for just a few weeks on hand. If that happens, he said the nation will be just as ill prepared for the next pandemic as it was in February 2020.

So, he believes more change is necessary to include payment reform and incentives for the medical industry.

“We need support. We need incentives. We need a system of payments that allows us to continue the essential services we provide, but it also allows us to not have to resort to that ‘just in time’ practice for supplies into the future.”

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Michelle Murillo

Michelle Murillo has been a part of the WTOP family since 2014. She started her career in Central Florida before working in radio in New York City and Philadelphia.

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