The Biden administration is working on getting a full picture of what the demand for personal protective equipment will be after the Covid-19 pandemic and where there are still gaps in domestic manufacturing, a top supply chain official said.
The federal government is having an “honest discussion” of where domestic medical supply production gaps exist, Brig. Gen. David Sanford, director of the supply chain task force, said in an interview with Bloomberg Law.
There are certain products that should be made in the U.S., and the goal is to “grow a U.S. medical industrial base, which was fairly nascent and non-existent” before the pandemic, he said.
Health workers still don’t have access to adequate PPE, although the situation has vastly improved since the beginning of the pandemic. However, the problems within the medical supply chain are more deeply entrenched, and consultants and government officials say fixing them ahead of future disasters will require governmental backing.
Multiple kinds of gloves; exam, surgical, and isolation gowns; surgical masks; and surgical respirators have been on the Food and Drug Administration’s medical device shortage list since Aug. 14, 2020.
Health workers and state governments have said throughout the pandemic that they don’t have enough protective equipment to care for the high numbers of Covid-19 patients who end up hospitalized. Many workers reuse their single-use masks for days or weeks, at one point were using trash bags as gowns, and they still don’t have enough gloves.
Sanford said his goal in the next month is to finalize what the demand will be, find where there are domestic production gaps, get financing to invest there, and make sure those companies can sustain themselves after Covid-19.
His time in the supply chain advisory group has been extended through March 16, and then he will likely return to the Defense Department.
The Biden administration is still trying to decide where the use of the Defense Production Act is needed when it comes to PPE. The DPA gives the president the power to require businesses to set priorities or accept contracts to promote the national defense.
It also allows the president to create incentives for expanded production through “loans, loan guarantees, direct purchases and purchase commitments, and the authority to procure and install equipment in private industrial facilities,” according to a March 2 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Sanford said his team is discussing if it could be used to prioritize orders for suppliers of nitrile glove manufacturing companies to speed up production. The administration plans to invest a half-billion in the domestic production of nitrile gloves, which are used in a wide array of routine medical procedures by doctors, nurses, and other medical providers.
To understand the post-pandemic demand, the government wants to know who will continue to need to use PPE and how often they will have to do so, as it is likely to change from before Covid-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working on what its standards will be for PPE use after Covid, Sanford said. During the pandemic, the CDC has allowed some supplies to be worn with an emergency use authorization, and it has required some industries—like dentists—to wear more PPE than it mandated prior to Covid-19.
Understanding those standards will help Sanford know what the national demand will be post-pandemic so the country also doesn’t over-invest in domestic production, which in turn could lead to companies struggling to find customers in the U.S.
The CDC is also discussing restoring its standards for how health workers can reuse and ration personal protective equipment, like repeatedly rewearing N95s.
Another variable Sanford will need to take into consideration is how non-medical industries, like retail, will use PPE. If manufacturers are producing for both in normal times, it will help keep capacity available in the event of future disasters, he said.