76 ventilators and batteries of protective equipment: what to do with leftover Covid supplies?

LTV fan
An LTV fan is placed next to a bed. Photo by Mike Dougherty / VTDigger

When Vermont received the 80 ventilators it ordered last spring, rescue workers feared they weren’t enough. As Covid-19 cases increased across the country, many hospitals were packed.

But Vermont’s case count has remained low. In the end, the state only needed four fans.

Now the remaining 76 ventilators are in an emergency countermeasures warehouse, where supplies have been stored to tackle the worst expected consequences of the coronavirus. As cases decline and vaccination rates rise, state officials are deciding what to do with all that extra gear in the event of a pandemic.

This summer, workers plan to inventory the state’s three emergency countermeasures warehouses and “properly size” the stock, said Erica Bornemann, director of Vermont Emergency Management. The goal? To have enough supplies for the next pessimistic scenario while making sure that “we don’t have a bunch of expired products on the shelves,” she said.

After a year of the pandemic, Public Safety Commissioner Mike Schirling said “there are substantial ways to change the way we plan for disasters in the future”.

State emergency warehouses, in undisclosed locations, were set up a decade ago to respond to crises such as an anthrax alert or other chemical events, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosives, said Tim Stetson, coordinator of medical countermeasures for the Vermont Department of Health.

Before Covid-19, state supplies occupied approximately 11,000 square feet. Now, stocks of personal protective equipment, masks, boots, inflatable tents, coveralls, awnings, hand sanitizer and, more recently, the vaccine depot have tripled, covering a total of 30 000 square feet.

This is in addition to the state’s allocation in the National Strategic Stock, which Stetson also manages in conjunction with the Federal Government.

At the start of the pandemic, the state shifted into high gear to order the materials needed to meet growing demand. Vermont typically aims to have 60 days of supplies. During the pandemic, the state doubled that figure. The warehouse holds 151 days of N-95 masks of various types and sizes, and 131 days of hand sanitizer, based on recent demand, Bornemann said.

The equipment was shipped to pop-up field hospitals that the Department of Health set up at the start of the pandemic. Warehouses offered protective equipment to nursing homes and hospitals when normal supply chains were overloaded. That’s where awnings and supplies to testing and vaccination sites come from – a whole new level of state preparedness, according to Bornemann.

“Covid has set a new bar for catastrophic incident planning,” she said.

How much is too much?

State officials have just started the process of determining what to do with the equipment.

“We want to build on the investments that were made during the Covid pandemic and make sure we don’t lose that investment in the future,” Schirling said. “It doesn’t make sense to unload them and buy them again.”

It means more planning. Fans, for example, require maintenance and use. Schirling said the state plans to donate the remaining 76 ventilators to hospitals in Vermont – provided the hospitals keep their current stock as a reserve for future emergencies. In this way, the state supply “will not just be collecting dust when and if we need it in the future,” he said.

That deal is expected to be ironed out in the coming months, Schirling said. University of Vermont Medical Center spokesperson Neal Goswami said hospital supply chain staff have not entered into discussions with the state.

The state also plans to add material to the warehouse – Covid-19 testing supplies, or at least nasal swabs, and materials from deconstructed pop-up hospitals. Schirling said he is also considering options for rotating medical facilities for equipment in the warehouse, so supplies do not expire. Hospitals would buy their own gloves, glasses and other supplies and then trade the new purchases for state equipment, he said.

Any new addition to the warehouse would inevitably have a cost, Stetson said.

“The more we have, the more we have to maintain and the more we have to manage,” he said.

The public’s appetite for storing emergency supplies increases and decreases as disasters strike, and then fades from memory, he said. In calm years, he hears an inevitable question: “Why are you storing all these things?” “”

But state officials will use the Covid-19 disaster to make sure they plan for the next one, Bornemann said – including on-the-ground training over the next few months of Covid-19.

“It’s a one-time event every 100 years,” she said of the pandemic. “We would be remiss if we didn’t improve all of our plans for this.”

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