PPE still constrained one year into pandemic: Premier report

por John R. Fischer, Senior Reporter | April 14, 2021
PPE supplies are improving but still constrained and limited among providers
While supplies of PPE are slowly rebuilding, meeting demand is still a challenge one year into the pandemic, according to a new Premier report.

Researchers attribute the cause to a supply chain imbalance created by massive increases in global PPE demand, which drove up raw material prices. This, in turn, impacted the cost of finished goods and led providers to add on additional costs to their already strained margins.

The report is titled The State of PPE Supply One Year into COVID-19. "Alongside PPE conservation measures, ongoing stockpiling efforts and a greater visibility into inventory status, hospitals today are better equipped. But as COVID-19 variants circulate and U.S. vaccination efforts continue, ongoing demand spikes coupled with global manufacturing, labor and logistics issues could lead to almost any product slipping into shortage," James Ludwig, vice president of supply chain strategy at Premier Inc., told HCB News.

N95 respirators and masks have been the hardest to source and secure. While still constrained, however, the market has improved from a year ago — when demand was up 17 times — with the average provider now having about 200 days of respirators on hand. This is due to conservation measures and stockpiling efforts, according to the report. Most health systems also have about 45 days of surgical and isolation masks.

Isolation gowns are made through the same process as N95s. Because manufacturers prioritized N95 mask capacity last spring, gown supplies compressed and became the top PPE shortage concern in mid-April 2020, with 74% of Premier respondents listing access to gowns as their number one concern. Most had only about 20 days of isolation gowns on hand by May, though this has roughly doubled to approximately 40 days on hand today.

A constant constraint has been glove supply and availability, which is expected to continue into 2023. Global demand for nitrile exam gloves exceeds existing production capacity by an estimated 215 billion units, while raw material scarcity, port closures, delays and a twofold increase in glove usage has exhausted ongoing shortages since June. Most Premier members have had fewer than 30 days on hand since March and are implementing glove conservation practices and other measures to increase supply.

Spending for masks and gowns initially spiked at the beginning of the pandemic but have since leveled down. It is still above pre-COVID levels for both. Spending for gloves continues to rise year-over-year.

Ludwig says we need a "much more resilient supply chain" to protect us from these types of future disruptions. He suggests the following:

  • 1.Modernize and technology-enable the supply chain, leveraging AI and predictive technology capabilities, for automation of manual tasks as well as full visibility, transparency and resiliency baked into the system.

  • Diversify production — including incentivizing more domestic manufacturing — to create redundancy plans and reduce overreliance on any single country or region.

  • Build more agility by opening new demand channels and supplemental sourcing options, including trusted e-Commerce platforms.

Premier's analysis was conducted in March 2021.

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