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Alaska brings in PPE from abroad amid high demand from communities, health care providers

  • Author: Morgan Krakow
  • Updated: May 10, 2020
  • Published May 9, 2020
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As supplies of personal protective equipment have run low globally during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a scramble to secure what’s out there. The state of Alaska, as part of an effort to increase its stock of PPE, recently received $3 million worth of that equipment from China.

The shipment is expected to last the state six months, Gov. Mike Dunleavy told reporters Wednesday. It includes 200,000 respirator masks, 1.2 million pairs of gloves, 1.2 million surgical masks, as well as protective suits and hospital gowns, the governor said.

The supplies arrived in Anchorage on April 29 and May 4.

Several health care providers and first responders need these supplies now as non-essential procedures are ramping back up statewide and the usual ways to get protective gear are strained. Plus, the state needs backup supplies in case of a COVID-19 surge.

The state secured some supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the director of the state Division of Public Health, Heidi Hedberg, said they still needed more. So, after looking to other states, they realized it was possible to order from overseas directly.

Using a contractor in China, the state ordered several types of PPE. The contractor went to the manufacturers in China and sent over samples for the state to test in advance.

“We had a really difficult time with the N95 masks,” Hedberg said.

The masks didn’t pass the testing they did, so the state opted for a similar mask known as the KN95, as “sort of a short stop, if we absolutely run out of N95s and we’re in a surge,” Hedberg said.

The contractor sent health officials pictures and daily updates as the equipment was being manufactured and packaged, Hedberg said.

They’ve been inventorying the shipments for the last week, Hedberg said, and they’ll be ready for use shortly.

And the requests keep coming in. At one point, the state had received about 350 logistics requests, Hedberg said.

From left: ANTCH certified medial assistant Halane Dock, Providence nurse Anaka Thorsted, Providence clinical lab assistant Eric Estrada, Providence nurse Danielle Edwards, The drive-up COVID-19 testing operation at Lake Otis Parkway and 42nd Avenue was staffed by employees of Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Native Medical Center nurse Phaidra Sala, and Providence nurse Josh Jones. Alaska Regional Hospital, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center. (Marc Lester / ADN)

First, the state asks health care providers to go through their normal supply chains, Hedberg said. After that, providers can go through their local emergency operations centers and jurisdictions to ask for the gear, and then the request makes its way to the state. Since supplies need to be handed out piecemeal, Hedberg said they’re trying to fill requests that would last a week or two.

“We need to kind of meter out these allocations,” Hedberg said. “Because if we gave everyone everything, we would have nothing.”

The Municipality of Anchorage requested a portion of supplies from the state Monday, said Audrey Gray, public information officer at the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

“We did get confirmation it was received by the state," Gray said, later adding that the state is still working on the request.

The EOC based the order to the state on the number of requests from providers in Anchorage that are still pending and what they expect to come in over the next few weeks, Gray said. The Anchorage EOC asks that providers request two weeks’ worth of supplies at a time, and strongly encourages them to have a plan for conserving the gear.

The city still has some other supplies as well — from a federal stockpile and donated items. At a Friday briefing, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said the municipality received a donation of PPE from Anchorage’s sister city in Harbin, China.

The last request Anchorage made to the state for PPE was sent on April 23, and they received a partially fulfilled order of the protective gear Wednesday.

The municipality can’t charge providers for the federal supplies, so in order to keep distribution from getting too complicated, they’re giving away all of the PPE for free, Gray said. And the municipality doesn’t pay for the supplies they receive from the state.

“The other thing, too, is we need to get this out and we don’t want costs to be an issue,” Gray said.

The city has a tiered system for distributing its supplies of PPE based on need and proximity to COVID-19 patients. And they’re only providing the gear to health care providers for now, not restaurants or other businesses, Gray said.

When providers call in, Gray said the EOC is also asking that providers circle back to their usual suppliers to see if they can obtain a smaller quantity than what they initially ordered.

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