Details of $27 million order for personal protective equipment still unavailable, more than a week after announcement

By: - April 16, 2020 12:05 am

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news briefing earlier this month on his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

More than a week after Gov. Ralph Northam announced a $27 million contract to procure more personal protective equipment for medical providers, state officials have yet to make a copy of the contract publicly available or provide specific details on the order.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted last week by the Virginia Mercury, Jessica Killeen, deputy counsel to Northam, wrote Tuesday that “due to current events, including bill review, it is not practically possible to provide potential requested records within five working days.”

The governor’s office needed an additional seven work days to provide the records, she wrote. That would ostensibly push the release date to April 23, more than two weeks after the governor’s announcement.

Northam announced that the state had secured a contract with Northfield, a Virginia-based logistics company, on April 6. The first shipment from Asia was expected to arrive the next week, he said.

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, confirmed Wednesday that the state had contracted with Northfield Medical Manufacturing in Norfolk The company describes itself as the “leading manufacturer of body fluid spill kits, infection control products and solidifier products for hospitals, food service, hospitality and transportation industries.”

A call to a number listed on the company’s website was not returned. Joel Nied, an attorney listed as the registered agent for Northfield, also did not return a call for comment.

In an email Wednesday, Yarmosky wrote that the contract had been executed and “includes multiple shipments to fulfill the entire order.”

“The first shipment is en route to Virginia, and we expect it to arrive shortly,” she continued.

According to Yarmosky, the order includes N95 masks, gowns, and gloves. She did not provide how many of each item had been ordered, or the specific equipment models.

“That would all be in the contract,” she said after Wednesday’s press briefing with administration officials.

The availability of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and disposable gowns has been an ongoing concern for medical providers across the country and in Virginia amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At least six state hospitals are reporting difficulty obtaining or replenishing their supplies, according to data from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. Some long-term care facilities, which house some of the people most vulnerable to the virus and are facing mounting numbers of cases and deaths, have also reported difficulties in getting enough protective gear. 

The COVID-19 death toll at Canterbury Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Henrico has become one of the highest in the nation at a longterm care facility. (NBC 12)

The need in Virginia is projected to grow over the next few months as the state inches toward an anticipated peak sometime between May and August, based on new modeling released Monday by researchers at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute. 

The date and severity of the peak could change dramatically depending on whether Northam’s stay-at-home order is extended past June 10 and whether the state implements further strategies to limit transmission. But as cases continue to grow, the need for personal protective equipment will continue to rise. 

As of Wednesday, there are 802 Virginians hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 496 more whose test results are pending, according to VHHA. Pending cases still require medical providers to wear full protective garb, which could equate to 240 sets of gear per patient per day in the intensive care unit, Northam has said.

Experts say confirmed and presumptive cases may be just the tip of the iceberg, given current testing limitations. UVA’s model assumes that there are seven COVID-19 infections for every confirmed case of the disease in Virginia. 

The shortage of supplies have been a source of anxiety for health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic. One Virginia doctor said asking providers to care for coronavirus patients without protective equipment was “like shooting fish in a barrel.” In a press call on Tuesday organized by the Democratic Party of Virginia, Dr. Wendy Klein — medical director of the Health Brigade free clinic in Richmond — said it was “very scary” to watch the news and see medical providers in inadequate gear. 

“You look at news clips and see people on the front lines wearing paper gowns,” she said. “Paper gowns are porous. We should be using waterproof plastic gowns, but we can’t get them.”

The high risks faced by health care workers makes it especially important to know more details about the $27 million contract, said Mary Lib Morgan, who recently organized a group called RVA Mama Bears for Life to advocate for Virginia’s first responders, emergency rooms and ICU staff. 

She pointed to the protective protocols at Cotugno Hospital in Naples, Italy as the gold standard for provider safety. The facility, which specializes in cases of infectious disease, has had no reported cases of COVID-19 transmission among health care workers thanks to stringent disinfecting protocols and advanced protective equipment.

Many health workers in Virginia, meanwhile, have been forced to reuse equipment or rely on donated materials, including homemade cloth face masks whose “capability to protect health care personnel is unknown” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Morgan, whose son works as a critical care nurse for a hospital in Richmond, said she’s grown increasingly frustrated and angry by the lack of protective equipment for frontline workers, stymied by a chaotic federal response and competitive bidding war between states and hospitals. While her son seems to have adequate face covering, she’s been concerned by photos of him in disposable medical gowns with his skin exposed. 

The type of equipment obtained by the state matters just as much as the order itself, Morgan said. Over the last few days, she’s reached out to Northam, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver, and local hospital leaders “encouraging best investments for best outcomes.”

“I want to make sure that if they have all this money to spend, they’re really purchasing high-quality and high coverage protection,” she said. “I want to know if they’re purchasing the right things.”

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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. While at the News-Post, she won awards in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, including a best in show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Most recently, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. Contact: [email protected]