Coronavirus outbreak could slam hospital supply chains for drugs, protective equipment

(Image: Getty/Jupiter Images)
Experts worry the coronavirus could lead to a shortage of critical personal protective equipment such as masks. (Getty/Jupiter Images)

Hospitals should prepare for supply chain disruptions to drugs and personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks due to the burgeoning coronavirus outbreak, several experts say.

The novel coronavirus, which has generated more than 150 cases in the U.S., has hospitals keeping a close watch on their supplies. Experts also say the virus has strained supply chains because the epicenter is located in China, a key manufacturer of PPE and active ingredients for drugs.

“We certainly have our eyes on the supply chain,” said Doug Allred, spokesman for North Carolina-based healthcare system Cone Health.

Allred said the system, comprised of six hospitals and more than 100 physician practices, has the supplies it needs right now.

“However, we are asking staff to use supplies judiciously,” he said.

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This caution applies not just to protective equipment like N-95 masks but also medical and surgical supplies in general.

“Certain supplies are on allocation from distributors, which means we cannot get amounts over and above our normal usage,” Allred said. “So it is important that staff are aware of the situation.”

A hospital can go through a large amount of PPE if an outbreak in their area occurs.

For example, Washington state has the largest cluster of cases with 70. The state has had to use a lot of protective equipment when treating patients with the virus, said George Roberts, president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Healthcare workers that are treating patients in respiratory isolation have to constantly churn through such items, he added.

“I am concerned we will have some shortages of that,” Roberts said during a briefing Friday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump did sign into law an $8.3 billion spending package that includes $950 million for localities. Part of the funding will go toward infection control at the local level to prevent additional cases.

But protective equipment isn’t the only area of the supply chain that is worrying experts.

Another concern is disruptions to the drug supply chain due to the spread of the coronavirus in the country. The World Health Organization reported that China has confirmed 80,711 cases of the virus, the vast majority of the 98,192 cases confirmed globally.

The Food and Drug Administration recently reported that there is one drug in shortage due to the coronavirus but declined to name the product.

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But experts say more could be coming since China is such an integral part of the drug supply chain; it produces active ingredients for at least 20 major drugs.

“I was talking with someone that penicillin coming from China has been delayed for several weeks but it is just starting to come back, so it is going to be hit or miss,” said Stephanie Kennan, member of the federal public affairs group for McGuireWoods Consulting.

Hospitals may have to institute cutbacks if shortages become widespread, she said.

For instance, a hospital could cut back on elective surgeries if they know “an anesthetic is not going to be available,” Kennan added. The supply chain issues with China dredge up a long-running concern in the healthcare industry about who makes drug products used in the U.S.

“The takeaway from this is that we as a country need to figure out how we can find other ways to get these raw ingredients or find some economic incentives that help us develop these new innovations in raw ingredients,” Kennan said.

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