Hospitals race to find masks, gloves and protective equipment

In a sense, the seasonal flu helped WellStar Health System gear up for the pandemic.

The 11-hospital Georgia system began stockpiling medical supplies in September of 2019, anticipating what could be a rough flu season.

Michael McCullough, WellStar's Vice President of Supply Chain, says they loaded up on personal protective equipment, or PPE.

"We ordered a lot of masks," McCullough says.  "We had well over a million masks.  We ordered a lot of isolation gowns. We ordered a lot of gloves, a lot of gloves."

Five months later, the pandemic hit. By July of 2020, as Georgia was being hit with a second wave of infections,

"We were going through a half a million exam gloves a day," McCullough says.  "Yeah, it's a lot of exam gloves."

WellStar's "burn-rate," the pace at which the hospital is using up PPE, has been intense. 

Each day, McCollough estimates, they use 2,000 N95 respirators, about 25,000 isolation masks, and around 400,000 exam gloves.

He and his team meet twice a week with with the hospital system's infection prevention team, he says, constantly trying to anticipate what supplies their hospitals will need, when they'll need them, and how much they'll need.

"This pandemic has created backorders in our industry like we've never seen before: feeding products, respiratory products," he says.  "But, other products have become more and more difficult to get."

Medical gloves typically purchased from companies in Malaysia have been in short supply, as have raw ingredients used to making isolation and surgical gowns and drapes used in the operating room.

McCullough says they have had to find new supply sources, competing with other hospital systems also trying to secure enough PPE.

Much of his job involves trying to anticipate what will be needed next.

"I think it starts, again, with real solid planning," he says.

Now, after weeks of holiday travel and Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers, Georgia is being hit hard by a third wave of infections, this one even more intense than the first two.

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On Monday, just over 5,000 Georgians were hospitalized with COVID-19, and about 90% of ICU beds across the state were full, a third of them occupied by coronavirus patients, according the the Georgia Department of Public Health.

McCullough says he's learned to brace for a jump in hospital activity about two or three weeks after each holiday, as gatherings seed a new surge in infections.

"We're clearly on an upward slope right now, which requires more labor, requires more supply," McCullough says.

McCullough thinks WellStar could see a peak in infections by the end of the January.