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Are Providers Ready for a Third Wave of COVID-19?

Much of the U.S. continues to report an upward COVID-19 case trend with more than 60,000 new cases nationwide as of October 15. This rising trajectory has healthcare providers, patients and much of America wondering – has the third wave of COVID-19 arrived? And importantly, are healthcare providers adequately prepared this time around?

In the spring, providers encountered a groundswell of critical challenges driven by the pandemic, and COVID-19 exposed a number of significant supply chain flaws.

Here we examine both the progress we’ve made in COVID-19 preparedness efforts as well as the hurdles that remain for healthcare providers.

The Good News

Without question, our nation is better prepared for a third pandemic wave than it was for the spring and summer waves. Across the globe, we’ve now coexisted with COVID-19 for long enough to more meaningfully understand the measures to tackle it, the speed with which they can be implemented and the disruptions that they cause.

Let’s take a closer look at the bright spots:

  • Less Panic Factor: In a global pandemic, even a hint of a shortage triggers panic buying that can’t be accommodated via a just-in-time supply chain. As businesses, cities and even entire countries shut down this spring, the initial shock triggered a buying frenzy for a quickly dwindling supply, causing PPE demand to spike between 300 and 1,700 percent—even in communities that had no confirmed cases. This time around, healthcare providers are more prepared and won’t be so surprised by an outbreak or a resurgence of the disease, and are thus less likely to overbuy out of panic.
  • More Manufacturing Investments: Even though the global COVID-19 census is on the rise, trade has largely resumed, and manufacturing capacity has been added to address surge demand. For instance, Minnesota-based 3M ramped up N95 mask production to 35 million a year in January, and with added investments, the company is again increasing its output to 96 million masks by this month (October). There’s also added supply from other, domestic competitors such as Prestige Ameritech, which is now producing an added 3.5 million N95 masks per month – thanks to a long-term investment in the company made by Premier and 15 of our members.
  • Hospitals Are Better at Treating COVID-19: Healthcare providers learned a great deal from the first wave—gaining a better understanding of how to predict an outbreak, provide care and reduce length of stay. As expertise improved, clinicians also gained a better understanding of the resources required.
  • Hospitals Are Better Equipped With Data and Technology: Today, U.S. health systems are enabled with more sophisticated product burn data, have greater visibility into manufacturer inventory status and prospects, and are leveraging new technology to predict supply needs and spot shortages. This technology uses automated, real-time surveillance capabilities—forecasting case surges and helping providers plan coordinated responses and resources where they’re needed most.
  • Providers Have More Access to Stockpiles: Nearly 90 percent of healthcare providers are actively contributing to their stockpiles, either at the direction of the health system, or in some cases, in compliance with new state laws. This means that there are many more options for providers to access stockpile supplies than there were in the spring, when stockpiles at the state and local level largely didn’t exist. Learn more about providers’ state-level preparedness efforts via Premier’s latest survey.

Upcoming Challenges

Although we’re seeing bright spots of progress and innovation amid this pandemic, a heavy increase in COVID-19 cases could once again throw the healthcare system into crisis.

Here are some potential areas of concern that must be continually managed in order to avoid shortages:

  • Super-Spreader Events on the Horizon: 2020 year-end brings with it several significant milestones and holidays, including Election Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. These upcoming celebrations have super-spread potential—and could spur COVID-19 case spikes alongside holiday travel, large gatherings and lax social distancing practices. Compounding case spikes could enable a collective surge 2.0, potentially overwhelming hospitals and health systems.
  • A Still-Fragile Supply Chain: Although COVID-19 care delivery has improved and product shortages appear to be less severe than they were this spring, the supply chain remains strained, in part due to the additional responsibility of managing, storing and distributing resources from stockpiles. This also strains the labor pool for many organizations now shifting away from a just-in-time supply systems. While healthcare providers are largely prepared at this moment, significant demand spikes could lead to the widespread shortages we saw in the spring. The American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists (ASHP) reported earlier this year that five drugs associated with ventilator use were officially in short supply—and spot shortages for these and other pharmaceuticals persist today. As cases rise and/or new research is developed to identify COVID-19 care and treatment drugs, almost any drug could quickly slip into shortage.
  • The Convergence of COVID-19 and Flu Season: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the 2019-2020 season saw 400,000 flu hospitalizations. If that number is replicated and coupled with COVID-19 hospitalizations, the resulting “twindemic” will put a major burden on PPE supply levels. However, with social distancing practices and increased demand for flu vaccinations this year, health officials are hoping for a slowdown in flu cases. Lead indicators show that providers and supply chain stakeholders are taking the right initial preparation measures—yet, many unknowns still linger.
  • The Unknowns Behind the COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy: With several viable candidates and clinical trials in progress, it’s possible the U.S. could see a COVID-19 vaccine this year. Once approved, the nation faces another set of challenges in producing, distributing and administering the vaccine; the scale, multi-dose administration and ultra-cold storage requirements make it a particular challenge. While the administration released its COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan in September, vital information and specific detail are sorely lacking, including how allocations will be decided for each jurisdiction; what, where and how administration sites will be selected; and requirements for the vaccine track and trace system being constructed. Healthcare providers need clear, specific and consistent guidance to optimize COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

To date, Premier’s members have cared for more than half a million COVID-19 patients across hospitals, health systems and other provider organizations nationwide. And while countless unknowns around the pandemic and the subsequent waves persist, one thing is for certain:

Premier’s unwavering commitment to enabling access to supplies, intelligence and technology so that providers can focus on what they do best—delivering outstanding patient care.

Further reading.

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