As the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, we at Curvo Labs are producing a series of resources to help healthcare supply chain teams as they navigate these uncharted waters.

We recently hosted a webinar discussion with Dr. Li Ern Chen, a senior health consultant with experience as a surgeon and within supply chain, and Andy Perry, CEO of Curvo, where they shared insight into the areas of utmost urgency for healthcare supply chain teams during the COVID-19 pandemic. This post is the first of three in a series that grew out of the insights they shared.

COVID-19: Urgent Topics for Healthcare Supply Chain will be divided into three parts:

Part 1: Dealing with Covid-19 Shortages: Masks and Other PPE

Part 2: Workforce Management & Work from Home

Part 3: Planning for the Chronic Phase of the Pandemic

Part 1: Dealing with Covid-19 Shortages: Masks and Other PPE

In part 1 of this series, we’re discussing the urgent needs surrounding medical supply shortages; namely, masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). The news is alight with talk of shortages and rationing. And supply chain teams are feeling the pressure deeply to source adequate PPE to keep their care providers safe. It comes up in every conversation we have with supply chain leaders.

We see it, too, in the data: purchases are up significantly, but production is down. As the pandemic continues, we know demand will only continue to grow. It’s important for supply chain leaders to leverage every opportunity to increase capacity, including conservation, augmentation, and alternative sourcing.

Conservation Strategies

The first approach is to conserve resources. The FDA recently announced guidance on using out-of-date (but still safe and effective) equipment, which allows for the use of some number of masks that were otherwise headed for the landfill. Another very successful approach to conservation involves extending the use of existing supplies, such as by limiting the number of masks a provider needs during a shift. If a provider is seeing multiple patients who have the same disease, the provider need not change masks in between.

Research on sterilizing and reusing N95 masks is ongoing. UV light is a potential – but still unproven – method for doing so. We’re watching carefully for testing results and hoping for a breakthrough solution. We’re glad to report that the FDA has truncated some of its approval processes given the nature of the pandemic, so we’re hopeful that a sterilization solution will be found, approved, and implemented quickly. Many in the industry are urgently working to solve this problem.

For the time being, the main conservation strategy is to reuse masks for multiple patients in situations when it is safe to do so. According to an article published by Duke University, several decontamination and reuse measures for N95 respirators and Powered‐Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) are being implemented, including utilizing Hydrogen Peroxide Vapor to decontaminate and reuse the respirators.

This is also a good time to evaluate whether any providers are using N95 masks for other purposes or procedures where they aren’t truly required. This is one of the places where the shortage is hitting hardest, and conservation is key.

Augmentation Methods

In some communities, individuals have begun crafting cloth masks. At least one local fabric store location precut fabric in the right sizes for these masks, and Hanes, GAP, and Zara brands have each announced that they are pivoting to produce cloth masks.

The question supply chain needs to ask, of course, is about these masks’ utility. They obviously aren’t N95 grade and can’t be used in N95 applications, but they could play a role in surgical mask shortages or other lower-risk scenarios.

We also expect that soon we will have specifications of the functional requirements healthcare workers require so that commercial textile manufacturers may be able to pivot into scaled production of masks that can be certified for certain uses. We aren’t there yet, but we’re close.

None of these scenarios can currently match the three-micron filtration level of an N95 mask, but they can alleviate adjacent supply constraints.

Alternative Sources

Alternative sources are yet another avenue to explore. In addition to several clothing brands making cloth masks, General Motors is pivoting one of its factories to produce ventilators (though given the government’s involvement, these are unlikely to hit the open market directly).

Some industrial suppliers are producing masks that could meet specific healthcare needs, but they are outside the traditional sourcing paradigm. While these industrial products certainly aren’t a top choice, if the choice is between these masks or bandanas and handkerchiefs, the right answer becomes clear very quickly.

There’s also what we’ll call “philanthropic sourcing” to consider. Dr. Chen heard recently of a school district that, in light of their complete closures, elected to donate all relevant janitorial supplies (including hand sanitizer and masks) to the hospitals nearby. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently announced that the company would release millions of masks into multiple health systems.

These are examples where those outside of the supply chain made proactive donations. Another example is an initiative started by #GetUsPPE, whose mission is to get PPE to healthcare heroes on the frontlines. Your team should be proactive, too: consider contacting other businesses or organizations in your area that may have supplies to offer.

Relevant Topics

Be sure to check out parts 2 and 3 of this series as we make them available, which cover additional urgent topics: workforce management/work from home, and planning for the pandemic’s chronic phase.