Virginia to get more protective medical gear via $27 million deal with a private supplier

By: - April 6, 2020 5:37 pm

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Gov. Ralph Northam announced Monday that the state has reached a $27 million deal with the medical logistics company Northfield as part of an effort to relieve what he described as a “severe shortage” of personal protective equipment in Virginia and across the country.

“We have been working every angle to buy more PPE,” he said at a news briefing. State officials have previously announced orders of equipment from the Strategic National Stockpile — a nearly depleted repository of medical supplies intended to aid states and localities during public health emergencies — and at least one company overseas. Details on the latter order have not been publicly provided.

Monday marked the first time Virginia officials provided details on their efforts to supply more protective equipment since the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, on March 7

The order from Northfield will include gloves and face coverings, including N95 and surgical masks, as well as disposable gowns and other protective gear like face shields, said Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver. 

Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for the governor, did not immediately respond to a request for a copy of the contract or more information on how long the state had been negotiating with Northfield.

The order is expected to arrive within the next week, said Brian Moran, Virginia secretary of public safety and homeland security. Virginia, like other areas, has been forced to rely on private suppliers and manufacturers to source protective equipment for medical workers handling a growing number of coronavirus cases. While establishing a reliable supply chain has been difficult, Moran said, officials expect Northfield to become a reliable supplier of PPE for the state. 

“We see that order as the first of what will be many,” he said. “Clearly the need even outweighs what that purchase will be. We’re anticipating a tremendous need for N95s in our hospitals.”

New documents released Thursday by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform showed that Virginia has been receiving a fraction of the personal protective equipment it has ordered from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. An inventory from the Virginia Department of Health, provided last week through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that the agency’s on-hand supply of federally sourced materials is even lower than what FEMA documents suggest.

Virginia has secured additional equipment from other sources, but it’s unclear how long the current supply will last. Northam, a pediatrician and former Army doctor, has estimated that the average hospital could go through 240 sets of gear per patient per day in the intensive care unit.

The ongoing need for supplies was further highlighted on Monday by a new dashboard from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, showing the current impact of COVID-19.

According to VHHA data, 538 patients with laboratory-confirmed cases of coronavirus are currently hospitalized. An additional 656 hospitalized patients are awaiting test results. Under most hospital protocols, doctors are instructed to treat those patients as presumptively positive, meaning that medical providers are required to don full sets of protective garb while treating them until a negative result is confirmed.

The new numbers vary from the state’s tally of hospitalized cases because VDH only counts the number of lab-confirmed patients who have been discharged from the hospital, Oliver said at the briefing.

“That number lags behind the number you would get if you were to ask that same question of VHHA, which actually tracks the current census in the hospital,” he added.

An additional 387 patients with confirmed or pending tests have been admitted to the intensive care unit, and 285 patients with confirmed or pending tests currently require ventilator support, according to VHHA data. As of Monday, 11 Virginia hospitals could exhaust their supply of personal protective equipment in the next 72 hours without additional support.

Oliver said that certain items from the Northfield order will be diverted to hospitals to meet the growing need. Those include N95 respirator masks — considered the gold standard in safety equipment for their ability to filter out viral particles. 

The masks are especially needed while intubating a patient, during which a breathing tube is inserted through the mouth and into the airway. Intubation is considered one of the riskiest parts of COVID-19 care, potentially exposing medical workers to viral particles from the mouth and trachea.

“In those cases, a surgical mask isn’t going to cut it,” he said after the briefing. N95 masks will also be diverted to nursing homes or long-term care facilities with outbreaks of the disease, which could require providers to test a large number of patients to contain the spread.

The latest effort to independently source coronavirus supplies puts Northam more in line with other governors across the country — several of whom have gone to extensive lengths to secure more personal protective equipment. 

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker flew in 1.2 million N95 masks on a New England Patriots team plane after the federal government outbid him on another shipment of PPE. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan has asked his wife — the first Korean first lady in American history — to request more supplies from the South Korean government. 

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.