Protect your longterm supply chain: Don’t hoard, just order what you need

by A.J. Plunkett (aplunkett@decisionhealth.com)

As the COVID-19 surge continues through its second wave and collides with influenza season as well as hurricanes, wildfires, or whatever natural disasters the year still has in store, supply experts have a big request: Only order what your facility needs.

It’s true that at the start of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gowns, as well as ventilators and many medications connected to using ventilators and treating COVID-19 symptoms, were in short supply.

But the supply chain has regained its balance, says Nicolette A. Louis­saint, PhD, executive director of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit formed after Hurricane Katrina to strengthen public- and private-sector access to medications and other healthcare supplies.

That balance can be easily upset, however, if hospitals and other providers across the nation do what they did as the pandemic hit the U.S.: order supplies from multiple sources and hope for one of them to come through.

That meant a lot of supplies were sent to parts of the country that didn’t need them yet, shorting the areas that needed them desperately.

Communication is essential

To determine what you may need for the risks identified in your area, talk to your suppliers, work with other hospitals in your area or region, and partner with your local or state emergency healthcare planning team, says Louissaint.

Remember that there will be increased demand for PPE as the flu season ramps up. Pharmacies, primary care physician offices, health clinics, and other providers will not only need gloves and masks as they provide flu vaccinations, but also alcohol swabs and ideally even protective gowns, notes Louissaint.

Prepare also for concurrent events such as natural disasters, she advises. In such events, people may have to congregate in areas not conducive to social distancing. Or there may be impacts to your physical facility. And there is always the possibility of a third-strain event adding to COVID-19 and flu surges.

Having a conversation early on about anticipated need with your supplier and your healthcare partners “is a much smarter tactic” than over-ordering or hoarding supplies, she says, which “can be harmful to other healthcare communities.”

Be prepared to discuss your current burn rates for PPE, medical supplies, and common medications you use to treat COVID-19, the flu, or other illnesses, says Louissaint. Try also to anticipate what supplies you will need to vaccinate large swaths of your workers and local population for the flu, or for COVID-19 if a vaccine becomes available.

All those things will help your supplier as it navigates the healthcare supply chain to plan for the correct supplies at the right times without depriving other facilities of the resources they need.

Flu vaccinations will be available, COVID-19 unlikely

Don’t get too concerned about vaccinating large numbers of people for COVID-19 in the near future, Louissaint advises. Even if a successful vaccine is identified, there will still be a 10- to 18-month timeline for it to be mass produced and distributed. Those timelines, first discussed at the start of the pandemic, have not changed, she says.

How much of that vaccine is produced when it becomes available will depend “on ongoing human behavior,” she says. The same applies to the production of PPE, medical supplies, and medications. In areas of the U.S. that are having more success with controlling new COVID-19 cases, the surges and demands on PPE, medical supplies, and medications will be more methodical than in other areas.

Having said that, the work of the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile and other healthcare supply interests has effectively stabilized the supply chain for now, she says. PPE, ventilators, and other medications are available, and states and organizations are monitoring things closely.

As for flu vaccinations for the 2020–2021 season, public health officials have identified the most common strains expected to be circulating this year, according to the CDC’s frequently asked questions website at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/faq-flu-season-2020-2021.htm.

Vaccine doses that protect against those identified strains are in production, says Louissaint, who works with many of the biologics and pharmaceutical companies across the U.S. and the world as part of Healthcare Ready’s mission.

Engage in community messaging

Louissaint and her partners encourage hospitals and other healthcare providers to promote the imperative need for people to get their flu vaccination this year. She and others note that a flu pandemic on top of COVID-19 and whatever else might happen would be a worst-case scenario.

That promotion should include reminding people that it is safe to see their general practitioner, safe to go to the hospital in an emergency, and safe in general to re-engage with the healthcare system.

It will also be important to note that while providers in some areas of the country are stretched thin, the availability of flu vaccines will not be.

Hospitals will need to vaccinate as many of their own staff as possible, more so this year than before, she says, given the likelihood of COVID-19 and the flu colliding in treatment.