A physician exec was trying to secure PPE for his hospital. Then the feds showed up

A healthcare worker donning personal protective equipment
A letter from a Baystate Health executive is among stories from multiple health systems about the intense challenges to secure enough personal protective equipment in the midst of the pandemic, including facing concerns of having that equipment ultimately seized from the federal government. (Getty/ShutterOK)

As Andrew Artenstein, M.D., put it, the adventure of securing adequate protective equipment at Baystate Health would have made for an entertaining tale at a cocktail party. 

That is, it would have been entertaining had the mission not been so critical, the chief physician officer wrote in a letter published recently in The New England Journal of Medicine.

While the supply chain activities of the Springfield, Massachusetts-based health system are typically out of his purview, Artenstein wrote, the challenges securing enough personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic had become so great as to require him to help the health system's supply chain group.

"These employees have adapted to a new normal, exploring every lead, no matter how unusual," Artenstein wrote. "Deals, some bizarre and convoluted, and many involving large sums of money, have dissolved at the last minute when we were outbid or outmuscled, sometimes by the federal government."

RELATED: The biggest worry for hospitals, healthcare workers: Protective equipment

His letter adds to a number of stories from health systems about the intense challenges of securing enough PPE in the midst of the pandemic, including concerns of having that equipment ultimately seized from the federal government, as the Los Angeles Times reported.

Artenstein described one deal for KN95 respirators, which are N95 respirators made in China, that materialized out of a lead from an acquaintance of a friend of a team member.

He said they ultimately flew three members of the supply chain team and a fit tester to a small airport near an industrial warehouse in the mid-Atlantic region while Artenstein arrived by car "to make the final call on whether to execute the deal."

"Two semi-trailer trucks, cleverly marked as food-service vehicles, met us at the warehouse," Artenstein wrote. "When fully loaded, the trucks would take two distinct routes back to Massachusetts to minimize the chances that their contents would be detained or redirected."

After they agreed to pay for the shipment—a fraction of what they'd ordered—two FBI agents began questioning the group about the shipment and where it was headed. Even after assurances the PPE was to be directed to a hospital, the Department of Homeland Security began considering redirecting the PPE. Intervention by a congressional representative ultimately prevented the seizure, he wrote.

"I remained nervous and worried on the long drive back, feelings that did not abate until midnight, when I received the call that the PPE shipment was secured at our warehouse," Artenstein wrote in the letter. "When encountering the severe constraints that attend this pandemic, we must leave no stone unturned to give our health care teams and our patients a fighting chance. This is the unfortunate reality we face in the time of COVID-19."