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Hospitals face severe shortages as pandemic grinds forward

Hospitals face severe shortages as pandemic grinds forward
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Hospitals around the country say their supplies of crucial medical supplies including personal protective equipment (PPE) are lower than ever as demand for different items has soared to an all-time high.

Data detailing usage rates of PPE and other supplies analyzed by Premier, a company that consults for health care systems, revealed that usage of supplies for COVID-19 testing and treatment has reached the highest rate seen since the pandemic began last year.

The data, gathered between May 2020 through January 2021, was supplied by 50 health care systems across the nation that are representative of the company's larger population of clients.

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PPE shortages first emerged last March, with officials in several states warning that they did not have enough supplies to adequately protect health care workers from being infected themselves.

Among the items seeing the highest demand as a result of surging COVID-19 hospitalizations through January include sterile water, which is used in many injections including the Remdesivir treatment former President TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Overnight Health Care: FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for adolescents | Biden administration reverses limits on LGBTQ health protections Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal MORE received as part of his COVID-19 treatment regimen at Walter Reed Medical Center last year.

Usage of sterile water is up 350 percent from rates seen last May, according to Premier's data, and hospital inventories have dropped an average of 50 percent.

Pipette tips and micro pipettes, used during the COVID-19 laboratory testing process, are also seeing higher demand than last year. Usage of pipette tips spiked to a more than 100 percent increase over last May during the holiday season in November and December before falling slightly in January, though it still remains at a far higher rate than hospitals reported early last year.

Hospital systems are also reporting these supplies much harder to find as of January, with the average delivery time for pipette tip orders jumping from a few days to nearly a month.

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Some shortages were the result of the medical equivalent of the wave of panic-buying that swept U.S. stores early last year as the first lockdown measures were announced by various states, Premier's data found.

"What was correlated ... was the request for supplies and the stock market volatility index," a Premier spokesperson said. "In other words, buying was more linked to perceived, rather than real, need. And even the perception of need is enough to trigger panic-buying that leads to shortages."

The challenges faced by hospitals trying to acquire necessary supplies for COVID-19 testing and treatment extends to the efforts of states around the country to administer COVID-19 vaccines as well.

Premier representatives told The Hill that hospital systems are finding it difficult to acquire special syringes called "low-dead-space needles" required to extract the sixth dose from vials of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, a process not possible with normal syringes and further complicated by confusion over whether all the syringes provided by the federal government in vaccine ancillary kits fit the low-dead-space description.

In an emailed statement, an HHS spokesperson told The Hill that 80 percent of the syringes contained in new ancillary kits the federal government began issuing on Jan. 20 were low-dead-space needles, while the remaining 20 percent could not be used to extract the last dose from Pfizer vaccine vials.

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"What has become a more pressing issue for our members, even more so than improving access to the low-dead-space syringes, is the need for vaccine," a Premier spokesperson added to The Hill. "Despite increases in overall distributions to jurisdictions around the country, our members are often reporting steady or declining allocations of vaccine that is making it very difficult for them to continue or expand vaccination efforts in the communities that they serve."

When asked what federal officials could do to respond to supply chain shortages, the company's representatives pointed approvingly to a recent update of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that advise Americans to avoid purchasing N95 masks as an example. Urging Americans to buy such masks could create a surge of demand, complicating existing shortages.

"While N95 supply is improving, the demand for highly protective masks has surged twelvefold during the pandemic, and Premier data shows that N95 usage increased 500 percent between July 2020 and January 2021," a company spokesperson noted to The Hill.

The company is also urging President BidenJoe BidenCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Manchin, Biden huddle amid talk of breaking up T package Overnight Energy: 5 takeaways from the Colonial Pipeline attack | Colonial aims to 'substantially' restore pipeline operations by end of week | Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE to form a public-private advisory council consisting of manufacturers, physicians, pharmacists and others to identify supplies critical to COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccine administration to ensure the availability of such supplies going forward. The Hill has reached out to the White House for comment.

The Trump administration faced criticism throughout 2020 from Democratic lawmakers for not taking greater action via the Defense Production Act (DPA) to address shortages in medical supplies related to the pandemic. The Biden administration announced in January that it would use the DPA in a more aggressive fashion, and at the time identified roughly a dozen items including N95 masks that were in short supply.

“The team will work with the states and the manufacturers to ensure that we’re using the DPA as aggressively as needed to accelerate the supply of the vaccine,” said Bechara Choucair, Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine coordinator, in a statement last month.

--Updated at 4:20 p.m.