WINCHESTER — As local medical personnel plan for a wave of coronavirus patients expected in May, they are running low on personal protective equipment and have a limited number of ventilators.
Valley Health System, the six-hospital chain that includes Winchester Medical Center, has 175 ventilators with 100 at WMC. Virginia, a state of 8.5 million, has roughly 2,200 ventilators, according to Julian Walker with the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association. Walker noted that most ventilators aren’t currently in use, but that is likely to change with thousands of Virginians expected to become infected.
The Virginia Department of Health’s pandemic plan predicts 30,164 hospitalizations statewide over eight weeks during a moderate pandemic, but the numbers will “increase significantly” if it is severe. “Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that pandemic activity could continue for as long as 18 months,” said the state’s report, which was written last year and updated in February.
Mark H. Merrill, CEO and president of Valley Health, said on Tuesday that the hospital system has about two weeks’ worth of personal protective equipment such as N95 masks, gowns and gloves. He said Valley Health has orders in to private companies. “The two biggest problems we have are inadequate testing capability and limitations on the supply chain,” he said.
In addition to private vendors, Valley Health is also relying on the Strategic National Stockpile, which is overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But Reuters reported this week that the stockpile is nearly depleted. Critics say the shortage is part of of a failed response to the pandemic by the administration of President Trump who disbanded the White House pandemic taskforce in 2018 and minimized the dangers of COVID-19 in January and February comparing it to the flu.
“President Trump spent months downplaying the coronavirus crisis and wasting precious time as thousands of Americans tested positive, got sick, and died,” U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said in a news release on Tuesday. “Rather than casting doubt on the gravity of this pandemic, the administration should have been working around the clock to prepare and execute plans to obtain desperately needed personal protective equipment and medical supplies.”
Maloney’s House committee released FEMA documents showing how few supplies Virginia has received as of Monday.
• Virginia requested 2.2 million N95 masks. It received 155,120, about 7% of the request.
• It sought 550,065 surgical masks and received 318,500, about 58% of the request.
• About 3.3 million gloves were requested but 263,032, less than 1%, were received.
• A total of 87,620 surgical gowns were sought with 59,886, or about 68%, received.
FEMA said the 100,000 ventilators Trump promised would be ready nationwide in June, according to the documents. FEMA compared its efforts to buy PPE on the open market to “chasing rabbits in an open field.” The release said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services admitted on Monday that it knew by mid-January that there weren’t enough N95 masks for the country. “HHS and FEMA officials were not able to provide specific timelines about when additional equipment and supplies would be procured by the federal government and made available to states,” the committee’s news release said.
Although masks, gowns and gloves are designed to be used once, Merrill said staff will re-sterlize equipment using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will also ration supplies.
“We are working diligently to make sure we manage the consumption,” he said. “If people don’t need to wear a mask, they do not wear a mask. And we’re looking at re-processing. Some of these masks can be worn more than one time.”
Merrill said he’s grateful to local companies that have donated masks and to residents who are sewing masks. He said he’s also proud of how hospital employees have responded.
“They are putting themselves in harm’s way,” Merrill said. “It’s our responsibility to advocate to get the resources that we need to care for these patients while also protecting our caregivers.”