76 ventilators and piles of protective gear: What to do with leftover Covid supplies?

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LTV ventilator
An LTV ventilator is stationed next to a bed. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

When Vermont received the 80 ventilators it ordered last spring, emergency workers worried  they wouldn’t be enough. As Covid-19 cases surged around the country, many hospitals were filled to overflowing. 

But Vermont case counts remained low. In the end, the state needed only four ventilators.

Now, the remaining 76 leftover ventilators are sitting in an emergency countermeasures warehouse, where supplies were stockpiled to combat the worst anticipated outcomes of the coronavirus. As cases decline and vaccination rates rise, state officials are deciding what to do with all that extra pandemic gear.

This summer, workers will inventory the state’s three emergency countermeasures warehouses and “right-size” the stock, said Erica Bornemann, director of Vermont Emergency Management. The goal? To have enough supplies for the next worst-case scenario while ensuring “we don’t have a bunch of expiring stuff on the shelves,” she said. 

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

The state’s emergency warehouses, in undisclosed locations, were set up about a decade ago to respond to things such as an anthrax scare or other chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive events, said Tim Stetson, medical countermeasures coordinator for the Vermont Department of Health. 

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

That’s in addition to the state’s allotment in the strategic national stockpile, which Stetson also manages in conjunction with the federal government. 

During Covid-19, the state went into high gear to order the materials needed to meet surging demand. Vermont typically aims to have 60 days worth of supplies. During the pandemic, the state doubled that. The warehouse holds 151 days’ worth of N-95 masks of various types and sizes, and 131 days’ worth of hand sanitizer — based on recent demand, Bornemann said. 

The gear was shipped out to pop-up field hospitals that the Department of Health set up early in the pandemic. The warehouses offered protective gear to nursing homes and hospitals when normal supply chains were overburdened. That’s where the canopies and supplies at testing and vaccination sites came from — a whole new level of state preparedness, according to Bornemann.

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

How much is too much?

State officials have just begun the process of figuring out what to do with the gear. 

“We want to leverage the investments that have been made during the Covid pandemic and make sure we don’t lose that investment going forward,” Schirling said. “It doesn’t make sense to offload them and buy them again.”

That means more planning. Ventilators, for instance, require maintenance and use. Schirling said the state is considering giving the remaining 76 ventilators to Vermont hospitals — with the stipulation that the hospitals keep their current stock as a reserve for future emergencies. That way, the state’s supply “won’t just be sitting around collecting dust when and if we need them in the future,” he said. 

That agreement will be ironed out in the coming months, Schirling said. University of Vermont Medical Center spokesperson Neal Goswami said the hospital’s supply chain staff has not started discussions with the state.

The state will also add some equipment to the warehouse — Covid-19 testing supplies, or at least nasal swabs, and materials from the deconstructed pop-up hospitals. Schirling said he’s also mulling options for medical facilities to rotate out equipment in the warehouse, so supplies don’t expire. Hospitals would buy their own gloves and goggles and other supplies, and then trade out the new purchases with the state’s gear, he said. 

Any new additions to the warehouse would inevitably come at a cost, Stetson said. 

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

Public appetite for storing emergency equipment waxes and wanes as disasters arrive, then fade from memory, he said. In quiet years, he hears an inevitable question: “‘Why are you warehousing all this stuff?’”

But state officials will take advantage of the Covid-19 disaster to ensure they’re planning for the next, Bornemann said — including on-the-ground training as the coming months of Covid-19 unfold. 

“It’s a once-in-a-100-year event,” she said of the pandemic. “We’d be remiss if we didn’t make all our plans better for it.”