BOONE — Health providers in the High Country have varying supplies of personal protective equipment on hand — such as gowns, masks and gloves — for employees as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Media reports across the country tell stories of health care officials rushing to buy PPE supplies from new vendors as traditional suppliers are running short or directing resources to specific locations.
“What is most challenging now is that all hospitals are ordering more, thereby creating a shortage,” said Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president for system advancement at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System. “Understandably, some suppliers have also been required to direct supplies to those ‘hot spots’ which have high numbers of inpatient COVID-19 hospitalizations.”
Hudspeth said that ARHS has PPE supplies at this time and a surge plan for a potential increase in COVID-19 patients.
“ARHS currently has no inpatient cases, so it’s difficult to suggest that we are forecasting a shortage,” Hudspeth said. “But that could all change in a very short period of time, if we were to see an large surge in inpatient cases.
“If we were to have hundreds of inpatients, we would run through our PPE very quickly. At that point it’s likely we would see federal assistance being deployed here, like you are seeing in other states.”
Hudspeth said that ARHS always has had a pandemic supply.
“In January, our purchasing department recognized the trends occurring in China and began securing additional supplies to prepare for the potential increases in inpatient cases here,” Hudspeth said. “In effect, we’ve begun ordering incrementally more, without irresponsibly hoarding those essential items.”
On its COVID-19 website, ARHS is asking for PPE donations, such as medical-grade surgical and procedure masks, N95 respirator masks, face shields, gloves, gowns, hand sanitizer and homemade cloth face coverings.
Tonya Elledge, the practice manager of High Country Community Health, a federally qualified health center for underinsured or uninsured patients, said that PPE equipment, specifically gowns and masks, are running dangerously low.
“Probably by sometime next week, we’ll be out completely,” Elledge said.
The shortage comes despite the clinic taking what PPE supplies could be spared from its dental clinics for its medical clinics.
Elledge said everything through HCCH’s regular PPE distributor is on allocation right now. In addition, prices have gone up through other vendors.
“The vendor that had reached out to our association was offering $3.33 per gown,” Elledge said. “By the time I got my order in, gowns went up to $13, so I wasn’t able to order as many with them quadrupling in price.”
Elledge said she’s not sure when the gown order will come in, if it does at all. As far as masks, Elledge said that CEO Alice Salthouse is sourcing homemade masks from her church and that the clinic will welcome all donations.
One item that has been delivered more regularly and the HCCH does not face a shortage of is gloves, Elledge said.
The Community Care Clinic of the High Country, a free clinic that provides health care to low-income and uninsured locals, has plenty of PPE equipment for now, according to Director Catherine King.
“75 percent of visits are by telehealth,” King said.
For local first responders, AppHealthCare, the regional health department, said it is carefully tracking its reserves of PPE.
“At this time, supplies remain limited, but we have been able to get PPE for our most critical needs,” AppHealthCare’s Melissa Bracey said. “Since we do have positive cases in our area, we have seen some supply orders for PPE through emergency management come through, though due to the high needs across the state, they have been limited. We have looked to non-traditional sources of PPE and are appreciative to all community partners who are donating supplies. Samaritan’s Purse recently donated a supply of N95 respirators and those have been distributed across Alleghany, Ashe and Watauga counties.”
North Carolina Emergency Management Director Michael Sprayberry has provided regular updates during press briefings on the state’s attempts to obtain personal protective equipment.
“We are continuing our work to source and order personal protective equipment,” Sprayberry said on April 8. “We are seeing some small signs that the supply chain is improving, but the market remains extremely difficult.”
In an April 3 letter from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to local medical providers, Sprayberry and N.C. DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen outlined conservation methods for PPE, with priority given to health agencies with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.
“We continue to request supplies from the federal government and have engaged hundreds of public and private vendors and manufacturers as we search the globe to bring as many supplies as we can to North Carolina,” the April 3 letter states.
NC order gives flexibility to expand hospital beds, equipment and personnel
Gov. Roy Cooper on April 8 signed Executive Order No. 130 to provide more access to health care beds and get more medical workers to respond to the rising demand due the COVID-19 pandemic.
The order expands the pool of health care workers and orders essential child care services for workers responding to the crisis.
The order offers flexibility using and moving resources, such as beds, dialysis stations, CT and MRI scanners.
It means hospitals can more quickly increase the number of beds to take critically ill patients and allow an ambulatory surgical facility to operate as a temporary hospital.