Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.
Buoyed by public donations and state purchases, Utah has a two-month supply of masks, gloves, gowns and other personal protective equipment needed during the coronavirus pandemic, assures the person in charge of creating the stockpile.
A plan in early April called for a 90-day supply, but Michael Glenn, who oversees purchases for Utah’s protective equipment stockpile, said the state has been able to vet and build relationships with vendors who can deliver more products if the number of coronavirus cases in Utah accelerates.
“Right now," he said, “we feel very good about where we’re at for a two-month inventory.”
Numbers provided by Glenn show how Utah has modified the supplies it wants to stockpile since the pandemic has progressed. Whereas Utah leaders in early April wanted 2.2 million face shields, they now want 600,000. Glenn said medical professionals determined the shields could be cleaned and reused multiple times.
The state has acquired those 600,000 face shields in part due to donations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and individuals and businesses in Utah.
On the other hand, Utah now desires almost 10 million surgical gowns — more than twice its target in April. Glenn said the previous figure was based on a pre-pandemic usage rate. So far, Utah has 910,000 gowns and has purchased 3.4 million.
The state still needs to find about 400,000 more N95 masks and another 400,000 surgical masks to meet its stockpile goals.
Glenn said the state’s mitigation efforts also have changed the forecasts for how much equipment it needs. One model from the University of Washington in early April, for example, predicted Utah would need 276 beds in intensive care units at the pandemic’s peak. A flattened infection rate has kept hospitalizations relatively low. That same model now predicts Utah will need 42 ICU beds at a peak due June 1.
Glenn is not the kind of public employee one associates with the pandemic response. He works for the state’s Division of Purchasing and has been assigned to the team coordinating Utah’s handling of COVID-19.
“If you would have asked me about about this stuff three months ago,” Glenn said Wednesday, “you could have said ‘N95’ and I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about.”
Besides the designation for respirators that block 95% of small particles — N95 — the public has had to learn the acronym “PPE,” which stands for the personal protective equipment health care workers and first responders wear around patients.
On April 3, it was revealed Utah needed millions of PPE items to protect workers as coronavirus cases swelled. Glenn said the state has been able to buy many of those items and has lined up vendors when it needs to resupply.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave Utah items from its supply, Glenn said. And Utahns have answered the call to donate what they could.
Glenn said individuals and businesses in the state provided 1,897,448 items as of Wednesday. That includes hand-sewn medical masks and gowns, face shields and gloves from dental or surgical practices and N95 masks from construction companies.
The state solicited those donations through multiple requests. An ambitious volunteer venture called “Project Protect” — in conjunction with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health — aims to produce 5 million medical-grade masks. The state’s coronavirus page also had a link for people and businesses to donate their protective equipment to health care workers and first responders encountering the virus.
Liz Close, executive director of the Utah Nurses Association, wrote in an email Friday that she is not hearing of any PPE shortages but noted that a sufficient stockpile remains a worry. The association surveyed Utah nurses in early April.
A few nurses reported that they had been asked to reuse protective supplies like masks, Close said. She hasn’t heard of such reuse lately.
“That does not imply, however,” Close wrote, “that nurses do not have continuing concerns about PPE availability, particularly should Utah suffer a surge in COVID-19 cases in the future.”
Much of the protective gear worn by health care workers and first responders is meant to be discarded after it’s used once. Some cloth masks or gowns can be laundered after a single use.
Even before COVID-19, there was concern the garments and gear exposed to sick patients could carry germs to others. The need to constantly discard such equipment has created a strain nationwide on supply chains and forced some medical workers to reuse gear that has been exposed to the virus.
Eric Holmes — a spokesman for Salt Lake County Firefighters Local 1696, where the majority of members work for the Unified Fire Authority — said his firefighters have the protection they need. When they answer a call to provide medical service to someone who might have COVID-19, he explained, one or two firefighters go into the home, and they are covered “head to toe” in protective gear.
The gear includes a body suit, masks, face shields, gloves and boot covers.
“We’re trying to reuse the very important gear when we don’t think it was a COVID-19 case after the call,” Holmes said.
Glenn said the state’s stockpile is available for hospitals, long-term care facilities, police and fire departments and any organization that is working with or might encounter COVID-19 patents. The purchased merchandise was bought with a mix of federal and state money, he said.
While masks, gloves and face shields have received a lot of public attention, Glenn said, the stockpile also has things like hairnets and boot covers.
“For people who go out and [collect coronavirus testing samples] every day," he added, “that’s actually a pretty important item.”