IL was like 'Wild West' in early days of COVID pandemic, but PPE stockpile has recovered

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
1st year of COVID-19 turned Illinois into 'Wild West'
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Taming the "Wild West" of medical supplies and personal protection equipment consumed Illinois government in the early days of the pandemic.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when state shelves emptied of critical medical supplies and the national spigot of safety equipment turned off, Governor JB Pritzker said of state, "It's a Wild West."

North Shore congressman Rep. Brad Schneider was even more blunt at the time, saying, "The left hand doesn't seem to know what the right hand is doing."

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Schneider was describing the sometimes vicious competition between states and the federal government for Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE.

A year later, as infection and death rates continue to fall and the emergency winds down, officials at the Illinois Department of Public Health said the state is in far better shape.

"IDPH does have a stockpile of PPE, ventilators, BiBAP machines and equipment needed to transfer vaccine, and we are adding powered air-purifying respirators" said IDPH spokesperson Melaney Arnold. "IDPH has also increased its storage space for supplies."

Despite the Strategic National Stockpile plan classified as a confidential document, Illinois Emergency Management Agency officials "monitor and maintain a 60-day stockpile of all necessary PPE for frontline workers, first responders, long-term care facilities, critical infrastructure workers, daycares/schools, and more" according to Arnold.

"In addition, all counties and accredited local jurisdictions were directed to maintain a 30-day supply of PPE based on an individualized burn rate," she said.

The burn rate is the amount of supplies that authorities would "burn through," or expend, during a crisis.

"This burn rate is calculated using peak pandemic conditions and accounts for the needs of their local health department, first responders, and long-term-care facilities," Arnold said.

More than a year into the pandemic, Cook County's top health official told the I-Team that they are far better prepared now.

"We were tracking the burn" said Dr. Claudia Fegan, chief medical officer for Cook County Health. "We tracked how fast we burned through N95's (face masks), how fast we burned through face shields and goggles."

When the pandemic started Dr. Fegan said there was no central tracking mechanism for equipment and that medical players with the biggest budgets managed to get the most gear when the pandemic began.

"Everybody was competing with everybody else for PPE. If you had more money and you could buy more at the same time," she explained. "You know, near the end, it got to the point that the suppliers were only going to give you so much. But initially, you know, the highest dollar got the supplies and that really squeezed out folks who didn't have the immediate cash available. And so that was a huge problem."

Now there is a strategy in the works, in which each hospital or medical center's needs, based on what officials learned during the COVID-10 pandemic, is factored into the stockpile.

Even as one pandemic seems to be winding down, for Cook County a response to the next one is already on the table.

"You'd be foolish not to be thinking about what's coming next and we expect that there'll be another pandemic," Fegan said. "We expect that the next assault will also be some type of infectious disease."