Supply Chain Failed Miserably Amid Pandemic, NJ Hospital CEO Says

NEWARK, NJ — A mad scramble for face masks and gloves. A critical shortage of key medicine, including sedatives for people on ventilators. And a Kafkaesque daily battle against the “highest bidders” for crucial medical supplies. These are some of the struggles that New Jersey’s hospitals faced during the beginning days of the coronavirus pandemic.

And according to the state’s former health commissioner, they all share a common origin: a disturbingly vulnerable supply chain that existed long before COVID-19.

On Wednesday, Shereef Elnahal, appeared before a U.S. Senate committee to speak about how the United States’ domestic medical supply chain failed the nation, making already-nightmarish conditions for health care workers and patients even worse.

Elnahal said the national supply issues of 2020 were especially tough on University Hospital in Newark, where he now serves as president and CEO.

“Our situation was dire – both within our hospital’s walls and on our financial balance sheets,” Elnahal told members of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

“Things were so grave that we briefly ran out of space in our hospital morgue, resorting to freezer trucks in a parking lot adjacent to the hospital,” he said, adding that the hospital found itself struggling to make its payroll in August 2020.

“The things we needed the most were the exact same resources that all hospitals needed,” Elnahal recalled. “So, every hospital was working their contacts across the global supply chain at the same time. This was compounded by businesses and individuals outside the health care setting taxing the supply chain even further as they attempted to purchase hospital-grade materials for their employees and families.”

Thankfully, a wave of federal funding helped to keep the hospital stocked with supplies – and just in the nick of time, he said.

“Without the CARES Act, University Hospital would have struggled in ways that some other hospitals had to just across the Hudson River, when some staff found themselves using trash bags as isolation gowns to provide patient care,” Elnahal said.

But although the nation seems to be “in the final miles of the pandemic,” the public health crisis isn’t over. And there’s still an urgent need to repair gaping cracks in the national health care foundation, including the medical supply chain, he said.

“The reality is that I am still not convinced that we are prepared for the next pandemic, whether from a vaccine-resistant variant of COVID-19 or a different pathogen altogether,” Elnahal said.

Read Elnahal’s full testimony below, and watch a video of Wednesday’s committee meeting here.

“My name is Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey.

“I thank the committee for the opportunity to offer insights into my institution’s experiences during COVID-19, and to offer the institution’s support for the Help Onshore Manufacturing Efficiencies for Drugs and Devices Act and the Pharmaceutical Accountability, Responsibility, and Transparency Act.

“If they had been enacted prior to the pandemic, the PART and HOME Acts would have helped my hospital better meet the care needs of our community during a difficult time. And I believe they would help the country make great strides in building a more reliable, domestic-based supply chain for future health emergencies.

“University Hospital is New Jersey’s only state hospital, and one of only 962 state and local government-run community hospitals in the United States. We are the Level 1 Trauma Center for the densely-populated northern New Jersey region. We are an academic medical center, and the principal teaching hospital…

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