Maine protective gear purchased with millions in federal funds sat unused for months

AUGUSTA, Maine – Much of the personal protective equipment Maine purchased with federal money at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic remained in storage until last summer, which a dog from guard called it a side effect of poor accounting during an equipment rush.

The equipment, which is known as PPE and includes gloves, masks, face shields and other equipment used by healthcare professionals to reduce exposure to the virus, was in short supply at the nationwide after the pandemic hit Maine in March 2020. Those shortages remained through the summer and led to a frantic situation in which states and medical providers were scrambling for more.

Using federal money, Maine purchased $43 million in PPE from 2020 to 2021, according to the state government’s annual audit released in March. At the end of June 2021, $26 million was in storage. State Auditor Jacob Norton’s office said Gov. Janet Mills’ administration did not properly track inventory or expenses in violation of accounting standards.

The problems are the product of an imperfect national response and a rampant build-up. But state failures may have led to misreported spending and increased the risk of equipment expiring and federal money wasted. Experts say Maine’s problems could make it difficult to mobilize quickly in the future if equipment is needed again here or elsewhere.

“It goes beyond economics and state government management, because there are healthcare workers’ lives at stake,” said Yana Rodgers, professor of labor studies and relationships. work at Rutgers University of New Jersey, which studied the contributing factors that led to PPE shortages during the onset of the pandemic.

In response to Norton’s audit, the Democratic governor’s administration agreed that the problem needed to be fixed. He blamed the rapid mobilization needed to stock, store and deliver hundreds of thousands of items at a time when protective gear and social distancing were the only tools to keep people safe. He noted that a warehouse system was set up in three weeks.

The state would have had to close warehouses to get a count, which would have prevented it from distributing the equipment to settings like labs, nursing homes and schools, said department spokeswoman Kelsey Goldsmith. of Maine’s budget.

The $26 million figure represented approximately 25-30% of the PPE units the state had at the time, an amount that was held back to ensure the state would not run out of equipment if more was suddenly needed, Goldsmith said. The state has delivered 28 million total pieces of equipment and currently has 6.4 million units of PPE in stock, along with other miscellaneous items, she said.

Norton’s recommended remediation plan includes cross-checking the number of items available in each warehouse and assessing the current value of remaining inventory. These tasks should be completed by the end of the fiscal year ending in June. The auditor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Many states had large amounts of leftover equipment due to the urgency with which they were trying to acquire it, said Soumi Saha, vice president of advocacy for Premier Inc., a national procurement brokerage firm. groups. States were often in bidding wars as they tried to acquire as much PPE as possible without understanding how much was needed.

Rodgers’ study found several causes of “perfect storm”. Most equipment was manufactured outside of the United States, and the supply chain was ill-equipped to handle high demand from the medical field and the public. Under former President Donald Trump, the strategic national stockpile was quickly overwhelmed, prompting states to turn to the private sector. Hospitals have had an incentive to keep supplies low because of the way they recorded PPE as an expense.

A stock is not necessarily a problem, Saha said. Stores could be helpful in ensuring states are well prepared for future disasters. But it’s a problem if the state doesn’t know what it has, when it expires or where it is, because that means it could be wasted.

“The most important thing is to recognize that we never need to repeat the situation of the past two years,” she said.

Maine’s largest healthcare providers have largely taken care of their own needs at key times during the pandemic, said Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association. He’s never heard of problems in smaller hospitals, which he says is a credit to the state’s response. The pandemic has since gone through several stages and there is no longer a supply shortage.

“I can’t remember the last time I heard a complaint about this,” he said.

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