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From the archives 2020

Pa. needs another 1,000 to 1,400 ventilators, governor says. Here’s how the state is trying to find them.

by Brett Sholtis of WITF |

For patients with severe cases of the coronavirus, a ventilator can mean the difference between life and death, making them hot commodities throughout the country.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Philadelphia Inquirer

This story was produced as part of a joint effort among Spotlight PA, LNP Media Group, PennLive, PA Post, and WITF to cover how Pennsylvania state government is responding to the coronavirus. Sign up for Spotlight PA’s newsletter.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has received a fraction of the equipment it has requested from a federal stockpile to help battle the coronavirus, new data show, as state officials look to other sources to purchase more supplies, including life-saving ventilators.

Health officials said there are about 4,000 ventilators available at hospitals across the state, enough to meet current demands. But Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday that like many other states, Pennsylvania is actively searching for more.

“I think, in a perfect world, looking at a very conservative model, if we could get another 1,000 to 1,400 ventilators in Pennsylvania, that would be great,” Wolf said at a news conference. “So we’re trying to do that.”

For patients with severe cases of the coronavirus, a ventilator can mean the difference between life and death, making them hot commodities throughout the country. With the federal stockpile running low, states are competing to secure equipment.

As of Thursday, 130 COVID-19 patients in Pennsylvania had required treatment with a ventilator, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said, though that number is expected to rise as cases increase. Wolf recently signed a bill to provide $50 million to purchase additional equipment such as ventilators and supplies like N95 masks, which are crucial to prevent health-care workers from getting sick.

On March 24, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency requested $3.5 million to purchase 200 ventilators, a procurement document shows. Those would be given to hospitals if a region sees a surge in cases, PEMA spokesperson Ruth Miller said.

A spokesperson for the Health Department, Nate Wardle, said the state has “worked to procure” about 400 ventilators in total, though he doesn’t know when they will arrive.

The state also has requested 1,000 ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile, Wardle said, but federal officials have not said “when or if we would receive those at this time.” Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, which has been harder hit by the coronavirus, said on Twitter his state had received 850 ventilators from the stockpile as of Wednesday.

Representatives for the Strategic National Stockpile did not respond to requests for information. But data released Thursday show limited help has come from the federal source so far.

As of Monday, Pennsylvania had received 23% of the nearly 500,00 N95 respirators it had requested from the stockpile, according to a document released to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Wardle said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has told the state it can expect another 120,900 respirators, but has not provided a date. The state has received nearly 70% of the 690,346 gloves it requested.

The document does not show any requests for ventilators. Wardle said the request had been made but was on hold until Pennsylvania demonstrates a need for additional equipment.

In addition to searching for available supplies, Pennsylvania has established a procurement portal that allows companies with ventilators as well as personal protective equipment like masks to come to the state.

According to a spokesperson for Wolf, “there were five suppliers for ventilators with an estimated 5,500 units available” as of 5 p.m. Tuesday. The spokesperson could not immediately say whether any had been ordered.

Hospitals and health systems can also purchase ventilators on their own, although it’s unclear how many are taking that step. A representative for the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania said the group didn’t have that information.

Penn State Health has ordered 10 ventilators to supplement the 115 it has on hand, spokesperson Barbara Schindo said. The health system, with hospitals in Hershey and Reading, also has about 65 anesthesia machines and a number of devices that can offer some respiratory support.

“We aren’t able to predict how many people will ultimately need this level of care — no one can at this point — but we are working diligently to support Central Pennsylvania during this evolving COVID-19 pandemic,” Schindo said.

It’s less clear what some of the state’s other health systems are doing to prepare. Unlike state agencies, they aren’t required to provide updates to the public.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Geisinger Health, and WellSpan Health declined to answer specific questions about available ventilators, though they provided general statements. Philadelphia-based Penn Medicine did not respond to requests for comment.

WellSpan, headquartered in Central Pennsylvania, has “adequate supplies and equipment, including ventilators,” to meet current demand and is working to increase resources in case they are needed, said spokesperson Ryan Coyle.

“This includes requests for more resources from the federal and state governments, as well as the sourcing of supplies and materials from vendors, local businesses, and community partners,” Coyle said.

Geisinger Health, located primarily in northeastern Pennsylvania, has seen challenges acquiring some supplies but has enough “to meet current and projected needs in our communities,” spokesperson Ashley Andyshak-Hayes said.

UPMC is viewing the problem from the perspective of a large health system with facilities across the state, spokesperson Kelly McCall said, with plans to route staff and supplies where they are most needed.

“This gives us the ability to confront this challenge as a 5,500-bed system, not as individual, stand-alone hospitals,” McCall said.

This story has been updated with additional information from the Department of Health.

Rebecca Moss and Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA contributed to this article.

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