Hospitals brace with supply shortages amid global port crisis

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Robin Estrin

A statewide indoor mask mandate goes into effect on Wednesday, as COVID-related cases and hospitalizations rise in California. As of this week, some 800,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Hospitals are bracing for another winter surge amid a shortage of medical supplies, such as wheelchairs, crutches, syringes, and more. It’s another casualty of the supply chain crisis that’s clogging up global ports. 

To get these supplies, hospitals must turn to vendors they typically don’t work with and/or pay extra for expedited shipping, which is exacerbated by the overall rise in transportation costs, explains Kaiser Health News correspondent Rachana Pradhan.

Some hospitals are even relying on donation drives to collect needed supplies, such as gently-used crutches and cups for collecting urine samples, she adds. 

“Many [medical supplies] nowadays are designed to make care more efficient. And so if you lose that, and you have to devote more human resources to some of these very basic things that occur in any hospital in America — that's not something you want to be doing in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis, where you're already experiencing health care worker shortages and all these things. And now you're distracted with walking samples back and forth to the lab,” Pradhan explains. 

To mitigate future supply shortages, hospitals are buying what they need in larger quantities. That can include enough gear to last 90 to 120 days. 

It’s still unclear how long the backlog will continue, but some health system executives Pradhan spoke to say they’re preparing for 18 to 24 months of disruption. 

Pradhan attributes the U.S. medical supply shortage to a lack of domestic manufacturing. “A lot of these goods, whether it's the raw materials or whether it's where they're manufactured, [shows how] we are really reliant on offshore manufacturing for a lot of these goods. And that's part of what is causing this. We don't have great domestic manufacturing capability in the U.S. currently for these sorts of things. And so when you have to rely on stuff from overseas, it just gets more complicated.”