St. Louis competes with feds, the world in struggle to acquire PPE

Local organizations are searching for vendors and the feds keep commandeering shipments.

Brian Kelly
May 20, 2020 - 11:12 am

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) - The effort to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect healthcare workers and others from coronavirus has been described by many as "the wild, wild west."  Some of the key people involved in the acquisition effort in the St. Louis area say that is an apt description.

"Our folks were calling people, literally around the globe to try and find personal protective equipment for our employees," says Dr. Alex Garza, Incident Commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, who is also Chief Medical Officer at SSM Health.

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St. Louis County Police Logistics Officer Matt Gabrian says he's never gone through anything like it. 

"This was unique in that we were competing with the whole world for these supplies," he says. 

Garza says while hospitals were out searching for supplies, vendors were calling them.

"Some of them were honest brokers and some were not," Garza says. "You had to be really careful to do your due diligence to make sure you weren't buying defective equipment. Weren't getting scammed." 

Garza says that was a challenge for the buyers from medical facilities, who do it for a living. Gabrian says for the St. Louis County Police Department, it was even more difficult.

"I built a team just dedicated to calling around to different vendors," Gabrian says. "We had already touched with our contract vendors who had supplied us just enough to get us through a quarter of what we needed for St. Louis County officers." 

To fill the rest of the county's need, Gabrian says they turned to unconventional sources. 

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"Reaching out to paint companies, nail and beauty store, dentist offices, dental supply stores," Gabrian says. "Just trying to come up with other means, other locations we hadn't touched yet in trying to obtain PPE gear."

Some of those they contacted, were not on the up and up.

"Some of which were outrageously priced," Gabrian says. We red-flagged those and had our procurement office look into them and they said, 'No, that's way above normal pricing, we're not going with those avenues.'"

And even when the orders were placed, Gabrian says there was no guarantee the PPE would arrive.

"We had several orders canceled where people promised they had it and they'd get it to us," Gabrian says. "We'd place the order and couple of days later we were told they don't have the product. They misspoke. They showed it in their computer at the time but when they physically went back it wasn't there. It had already been sold." 

Gabrian isn't sure why those orders didn't come through, but Garza says on a couple of occasions the federal government commandeered orders meant for St. Louis.

"Now we're competing with the federal government in addition to all the other healthcare services for the same equipment and for the same testing supplies," Gabrian says. "It just makes it that much more difficult."    

Garza says he'd like to see the federal government step in and use the powers only it has, to make it easier to supply our healthcare workers and others with PPE.

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