'We could not be the reason we failed’: UMass Memorial team now stockpiling PPE

BOSTON — When COVID-19 was surging in Massachusetts in the spring, many hospitals came dangerously close to running out of essential personal protective equipment, or PPE.

There was a global competition for N95 masks, surgical gowns and gloves, and these lifesaving items were in short supply.

But out of the those tense moments came valuable lessons on how to prepare for highly infectious diseases. Now, as a fall surge looms over the Commonwealth, hospitals are applying those lessons.

Boston 25 News anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh was granted rare access into UMass Memorial Health Care’s medical supply warehouse, and got a firsthand look at the impressive supply of PPE the facility is stockpiling.

We met UMass’s senior director of supply chain logistics, Henry Lopez, outside a sprawling warehouse near Worcester. Inside the 51,000 square foot facility there are rows upon rows of isolation gowns, eye protection, gloves and disinfectant. It’s an impressive cache born out of the scramble of the spring COVID-19 surge, a time Lopez calls the most stressful three months of his entire career because lives were on the line.

“It had that sense of urgency. We could not be the reason we failed,” he recalls of the early days of the pandemic.

According to Lopez, UMass’s average inventory value was about $1.7 million dollars prior to COVID. Right now, inventory size is about 10 times that.

“Our goal is to have a minimum of three months,” he said, adding that all that supply gave him peace of mind and a sense of reassurance.

“Knowing that we could potentially go into a surge situation in the fall or a bad flu season, this is an insurance,” said Lopez.

During those frantic days of the pandemic, he said, a grim reality set in - the hospital was consuming PPE like never before and lives were on the line.

“You’re staring at what seems to be an unsurmountable task to get all the products that we need and there is no timeline as to when it would be over,” he recalled. “They’re there to take care of them, and our job is to make sure [the frontline staff] have everything they need.”

Lopez remembers times when the supply chain could no longer help. There was a day in particular where a shipment of 125,000 gowns was expected but only 60,000 show up. At the time, UMass was going through 7,000 gowns a day so he and his team got creative. They contacted veterinarian distributors in addition to Amazon and every third party broker they could think of.

“It becomes very stressful when you don’t know if you’re going to going to succeed,” he said. “You only needed one person to be real to help you out.”

Help did eventually come one day. A local man called the hospital saying he had business connections in China and wanted to assist.

“We wouldn’t have made it. We wouldn’t have made it without the help of the community and without the help of the people that reached out to us.”

That help was so critical, according to Lopez, especially since the government wasn’t calling to offer any help. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

“We were competing with the state. We were competing with the feds,” he said.

A shipment he ordered from China, he recalled, was intercepted somewhere in the United States and never made it to Worcester.

Now, as the state and the nation brace for another surge of coronavirus, Lopez says those tough early lessons prepared him and his team well to problem-solve in real time for whatever comes next.

“My biggest hope is that as a country we have learned from this. I would like for all of us to have learned and be better prepared,” said Lopez.

While UMass has rebounded from the severe PPE shortages of the spring, there are still backorders on certain supplies. Across the nation, some hospitals report they are struggling to meet their PPE reserve targets. In many places, the raw materials that are needed to make PPE are also hard to come by.

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