State looks to private industry for protective medical gear
Northam calling on companies to redirect safety equipment for front-line medical workers.
UPDATED MARCH 27, 4 P.M.
This week, Virginia received its first shipment of personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line health care workers from the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile, but that supply is falling far short of the demand that will be needed for the COVID-19 pandemic, so Gov. Ralph Northam is calling on private industry to help.
“We know it will not be enough and this is an issue nationwide,” Northam said during a news briefing this week.
PPE is necessary to protect for medical workers and first responders who are critical to the battle against coronavirus. In normal times, an ICU patient could be seen by a team of three to five physicians, Northam said. In the case of COVID-19, however, patients could be seen by 10 or more health care workers, including people such as a cardiologist, a pulmonologist, an infectious disease specialist, a respiratory therapist, a pharmacist, an IV technician and a radiology technician — all of whom need multiple pieces of protective equipment for each patient they treat. “These are highly-trained individuals. They are finite in number,” Northam said. “So we need to do everything that we can to protect them and to keep them healthy.”
On Monday, Northam said that members of his administration, including Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball and Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey, are looking to fill the gap for the much-needed protective equipment by seeking similar protective gear such as respirator masks used by other industries. “We’re talking to dentists, people in the tech industry, the coal industry and tobacco companies,” Northam said during his March 24 coronavirus news briefing. Later in the week, on March 27, Northam said that companies including Micron, Dominion Energy Inc. and Home Depot had donated “tens of thousands of PPE” items and that the state will need far more to meet the demand.
Businesses that are interested in donating PPE can do so at virginia.gov/covid19supplies.
Dental and construction companies were contacted by state government sources and making equipment available early in the week, but coal industry sources weren’t approached until days after Northam first mentioned it.
Harry D. Childress, president of the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance (VCEA) said Wednesday morning that coal companies in his alliance had not been approached by the state government to redirect supplies. “I’m sure if they were approached they would do what they can,” Childress said.
The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) was not contacted by state administration officials until late Wednesday afternoon, says DMME spokesperson Tarah Kesterson. “The governor’s office reached out to our agency to see if any of our companies wanted to donate rubber gloves and masks,” Kesterson confirmed. “It was late [Wednesday] afternoon, so I think our inspectors will be informing the coal mining sites today.”
DMME oversees licensing and regulations for about 40 coalmines in the commonwealth, which last year employed approximately 3,000 employees and produced 12 million tons of coal.
The governor’s office confirmed Thursday morning that the state government has begun contacting coal mines for supplies.
“Gov. Northam’s economic development team made contact with leadership at the United Company, and they have reached out to other coal companies,” says Cotton Puryear, a spokesperson for the Virginia COVID-19 Unified Command Joint Information Center. “The president of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce has been contacted, and all the Southwest Virginia Chamber presidents are scheduled to have a discussion on Friday about how their member companies can help.”
Coal companies are still operating as essential businesses, adhering to social distancing guidelines, Childress says. If approached by the state government to provide supplies, that could reduce the amount of safety equipment available for miners. “They would try to look at what they would need and try to determine whether they have any excess that they could part with,” Childress says of the mining companies.
Other industries, including construction and dentistry industries, were approached early in the week and have already made efforts to redirect PPE items.
The Virginia chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) trade association was approached earlier this week by the state government to redirect supplies, says Virginia ABC chapter president Pat Dean . “And they are gladly doing so,” Dean says. “I’ve already gotten three calls today and Northam just called one of my contractors yesterday afternoon. He had just sent over a couple thousand masks to [health care provider] Kaiser [Permanente] in Reston. He has more that he can get through to them.”
In reaction to Northam’s request, the association sent out an email to all of its contractors encouraging them to dig through their inventory and transfer PPE items to the Virginia Hospital Association or hospitals in their respective areas.
“We’ve got to chip in. Everybody chips in,” Dean says. “Soon we’ll get through this.”
Most construction companies are still operating, Dean says, with proper social distancing guidelines in place. To ensure that construction can still take place with adequate PPE for their own workers, companies are sending excess product they can spare.
“From the three [contractors] I’ve talked to, they gave what they knew they could spare until their next order came in,” Dean says. Companies are also dedicating portions of their upcoming PPE orders to hospitals, contributing what they can, he added.
The Virginia Dental Association (VDA) is also donating supplies. VDA President Dr. Elizabeth Reynolds last week put out a call to the association’s 3,900 members to take stock of potential PPE that could be donated and to consider donating safety equipment, says Paul Logan, VDA director of strategic initiatives and innovation.
And they answered that call. The VDA Foundation, which oversees a volunteer dental services program for seniors and adults with disabilities, donated to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) this week 1,000 surgical masks, cases of surface disinfectant wipes, surgical gown-type jackets and hand sanitizer. The supplies that would have been used at volunteer dental care events that have now been postponed due to the virus.
The Richmond Dental Society also independently donated 250 masks and 500 sets of gloves and Commonwealth Dentistry donated 1,500 gloves and 1,050 masks to date, Logan says.
“We are seeing tremendous cooperation across multiple business sectors,” Puryear says. “We are confident that cooperation will grow and contribute to building Virginia’s capacity to help produce the resources we need in the fight against COVID-19.”