The University of Maryland Medical System is donating $4.6 million worth of personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves as well as generators and other goods to South Asian countries currently hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
The move to send 200 pallets of gear to India, Sri Lanka and other countries would have been unimaginable earlier in the pandemic when the system and most hospitals in the state and country were struggling to acquire enough equipment because of surging demand and temporary closure of major Chinese manufacturers during pandemic-related lockdowns.
Some U.S. hospitals outside Maryland shared images of front-line health care workers donning trash bags for protection. Reusing disposable masks became commonplace. Many facilities limited visitors and avoided unnecessary trips to the bedside of COVID patients to preserve protective gear.
News of shortages spurred countless community volunteers to sew masks for first responders and hospital workers, and amateurs and businesses retooled their equipment to produce face masks, hand sanitizer and other goods.
After scrambling to preserve equipment and find more early in the pandemic, the 13-hospital university system in Maryland now has more than it needs.
“These items were purchased at a time when the supply markets were very unstable, and we were focused on securing as much equipment and PPE as possible to ensure we were ready,” said Patrick Vizzard, vice president of supply chain management for the system, in a statement about the donation.
“Now, 16 months into the pandemic, supply lines have become more open in the United States healthcare market,” he said. “While the pandemic still continues across the planet, various countries are struggling to achieve necessary levels of care to combat COVID, and we’ve decided to donate excess supplies to help with the needs of less fortunate countries.”
Though cases and hospitalizations in the United States have dropped substantially and the supply crunch has eased, those early pandemic conditions have led to an examination at the federal level of manufacturing capabilities, emergency stocks on hand and other shortcomings.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing May 19, and its chairman, Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat of Michigan, said in his opening statement that the warning signs were there before COVID-19 cases began filling hospital beds.
He noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned in 2019 about a “worst case” pandemic scenario that would lead to a shortage of medical supplies, beds and health care workers. Peters also called out the former administration of Republican President Donald Trump specifically for not coordinating supply purchases and leaving states to fend for themselves, a strategy that could result in bidding wars.
State officials in Maryland augmented what hospitals and first responders could acquire, sometimes using emergency contracts that later drew scrutiny, including a much-criticized purchase of coronavirus test kits from South Korea. The state also created a portal to connect buyers and sellers of protective gear.
Before vaccines were available, Hogan called sufficient protective equipment one of four pillars to lift restrictions and reopen the state, along with adequate testing and contract tracing. Adequate levels of testing equipment such as syringes and reagents also have remained a challenge through much of the pandemic. The state never ran out of hospital beds, as Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, ordered thousands to be added inside and outside existing hospitals.
For their own stocks of protective gear, the Maryland Hospital Association said local hospitals worked “creatively” by tapping local vendors who could shift to producing needed items, seeking new overseas vendors and even making their own equipment. Hospitals also partnered to expand purchasing power.
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Bob Atlas, the hospital association’s president and CEO, said with the pandemic easing, supply chains are returning somewhat to normal and he applauded the Maryland hospital system for donating needed goods “in another part of the world where many Marylanders have roots and where the pandemic continues to rage.”
Tinglong Dai, professor of operations management and business analytics in the Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School, said the issues shouldn’t be forgotten now that they are no longer a problem. He said the nation needs to rebuild its supply chain in a way that provides reliable surge capacity in times of crisis.
That means maintaining raw materials, as well as professionals working on new medical supplies technologies, he said.
“The N95 respirator was invented in the U.S. in the 1990s — a time in which the U.S. still had a vibrant medical supplies manufacturing sector,” he said. “There is no reason we can’t have safer, cheaper and easier-to-produce PPE in the coming decades. However, if the U.S. continues to hollow out its manufacturing sector, it will cease to innovate, too.”
With the American supply crisis at bay for now, the University of Maryland hospital system is working to transport its donated goods through two groups: Project C.U.R.E., a global distributor of donated medical equipment to resource-limited communities, and the International Medical Health Organization, a grassroots global health nonprofit working in underserved regions of the world.
Dr. Kanaga N. Sena, vice president of the International Medical Health Organization, also expressed gratitude in a statement for “much needed” life support equipment to be used in Sri Lankan hospitals for COVID patient care.
“These are unprecedented times, and the demand for medical relief has never been greater,” said Douglas Jackson, Project C.U.R.E.’s president and CEO, in a statement. “Certainly, Project C.U.R.E. could not accomplish our work without the partnership of compassionate, determined organizations like UMMS.”