Thousands of masks, face shields, gloves, gowns and other equipment have flowed into Oklahoma’s hospitals and the state’s reserve stockpile as officials brace for a flood of COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks.

Over seven days, hospitals reported their supply of personal protective equipment increased significantly, giving them an average of 14.2 days worth of the critical armor needed for health-care workers to avoid getting ill and keep caring for patients. The average days, from the state’s latest inventory count on Friday, is up from 9.4 days a week before.

The state’s reserves also have grown, with a near-doubling of face shields, to 198,000, and an almost tripling of high-quality N-95 masks, to 207,905. Another 1.2 million premium masks are  expected to arrive from out of state soon, Gov. Kevin Stitt said at a press conference Thursday.

But is it enough?

State leaders and hospitals haven’t said exactly how much equipment on hand will be needed to meet the expected surge of COVID-19 patients. The latest equipment numbers speak only to present caseloads. The number of average days of PPE are “based on facilities’ current demands,” not demands later this month, a health department official said in an email.

A predictive model backed by the White House projects Oklahoma is nearly three weeks away from its COVID-19 peak, when up to 52 people could die each day. The model says the state would continue to see hospitalizations at least until June.

At the press conference, Oklahoma Secretary of Health Jerome Loughridge described the hospitals’ current inventory as “comfortable.” He said the state gets regular updates from hospitals on any shortages so the state’s stockpile can address the needs. National Guard members are assisting in contacting hospital each day to collect numbers.

Hospitals have run into challenges in buying equipment through their existing supply chains. The equipment is becoming scarcer as other states and countries scramble to fill shortages.

During strong winds, nurses used tape to secure their gowns while working at a drive-through site where people are being tested for the coronavirus on April 2. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Oklahoma Hospital Association Vice President of Quality LaWanna Halstead said these supply chains have been “unreliable.” When orders are placed, she said, the timing for delivery is often unclear.

“(Hospitals) are very concerned, and they are working toward their preparedness plans,” she said. “Building up of PPE is one of those concerns right now and whether they will have enough to meet that surge capacity.”

Halstead said hospitals here haven’t had to take some of the drastic steps seen in other places, such as using homemade masks. But some patients are receiving homemade masks to shield them and take home when they’re discharged, she said.

She added that rural hospitals are faring the best for now. But urban hospitals, which have most of the cases, are “burning through” their personal protective equipment at a faster rate.

The state’s data shows this. The average days of PPE on hand at acute care hospitals in Oklahoma City and Tulsa is 5 days, compared with the statewide average of 14.2.

The stakes are high if the hospitals don’t have the face shields, masks, gowns and other PE they need.

“It is critically important because this is what will prevent our staff from getting the virus,” Halstead said.

A box of gloves is seen at a mobile testing facility in Oklahoma City. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Shelley Zumwalt, chief of innovation at the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said efforts to acquire more PPE are a “moving target.” The state is constantly reassessing the expected demand and how successfully hospitals are tapping their supply chains.

Oklahoma received its full request from the federal Strategic National Stockpile, with orders arriving in recent weeks and days, Zumwalt said. The state doesn’t anticipate making another request – there is a deluge of stockpile asks from other states – but Oklahoma has requested multiple orders from private companies, she said.

The state didn’t provide details of those requests.

Even with fulfilled orders, questions have arisen over the quality of some equipment because it has exceeded its shelf life.

State officials haven’t given the type or amount of all expired equipment. But at least for N95 respirator masks, which filter out tiny particles, including viruses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that expired respirator masks will still provide better protection than normal surgical masks and improvised covers or bandanas.

Expired equipment would likely be distributed to hospitals only after non-expired ones have been exhausted, Zumwalt said.

“It is basically our pile of last resort,” she said.


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Trevor Brown

Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589 or email at tbrown@oklahomawatch.org....