State orders $2.7 million in respirator masks, but arrival date is still a mystery

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver spoke at a press conference in March on Capitol Square. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said the state ordered $2.7 million in respirator masks as part of its ongoing effort to respond to the growing spread of COVID-19 — the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus.

The catch? The state isn’t sure when the shipment will arrive. Virginia was one of dozens of states to place an order for the masks as the country scrambles to respond to the spreading viral outbreak. And with some people buying the masks in bulk, the result has been a shortage of supplies that experts worry will threaten providers on the front lines of the disease.

“That we don’t know,” Oliver said, referring to the expected shipment. “Because all of the states placed orders. And with all of the states placing orders, the national stockpile is going to be tapped out.”

With growing demand, Oliver said that federal agencies would prioritize deliveries to the states currently hit hardest by the disease. In Washington, one of the epicenters, hundreds of people have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 30 have died. As of Friday, Virginia has 30 positive cases — nearly double the number on Thursday, which was nearly double the number on the day before.

New information is still coming out on COVID-19 transmission, and health experts still aren’t entirely sure how the virus is spread. But the recent evidence suggests that transmission is linked to close contact with infected patients — the first known person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in the U.S. was a woman who spread the disease to her husband after returning from travel in Wuhan, China. “Viral droplets” from infected patients are also a concern, and health workers who come in contact with patients have been advised to wear N95 respirator masks, which fit tightly over the face and filter out airborne contaminants.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has already issued guidelines to health care providers with strategies for conserving their supply. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines for doctors earlier this week, allowing them to wear surgical masks — which do not filter contaminants and are designed to prevent the wearer from infecting sterile environments — as an “acceptable alternative” in the absence of respirators.

Oliver said the state of emergency declared by Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday would also allow the state to bypass federal restrictions on equipment for medical providers. It’s true of respirator masks, but also for supplies, which are usually subject to procurement guidelines.

“Let’s say I find a source of hand sanitizer that’s not from the established government chain of procurement,” he said. “Without the executive order, I’m stuck. I’m not supposed to buy it. So, emergency procurement is really critical when you’re trying to get supplies.”