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KSB Materials Management Director brings a Responsive and Creative Process to protect Hospital Staff

Katherine Shaw Bethea Hospital (KSB) in Dixon, IL has its very own dealmaker. During the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for personal protective equipment (PPE), the gear used to protect front line healthcare workers from infection, jumped to an all-time high. Enter Tom Suits, KSB’s Director of Materials Management. To make the situation even more interesting, Suits only recently started in the position late last year.

“I’m a rookie,” he laughed. His normal daily duties were getting up to speed with current vendors, the local and national contracts used by KSB, as well as learning a new computer system and facing a fiscal-year end right around the corner. Within two months, everything changed.

The COVID-19 pandemic had arrived. It wasn’t long before KSB received notice from their distributors that the supply lines would be drastically reducing numbers. During pre-pandemic times, the hospital was able to order and receive 100 percent of needed supplies. Within a week of the COVID-19 crisis starting, that percentage dropped to 80 and then quickly down to 60 percent. This reduction included not only PPE, but surgical table drapes and other necessary hospital products.

“When the crisis hit, I knew I had to start making calls to vendors right away. The first person that calls gets the masks, gets the gowns. Before COVID-19, we had a normal stock of 1,600 isolation gowns. Today we have thousands,” remarks Suits. “It means changing gears in a hurry.”

“We discovered that we needed to be creative in not just how we procured items, but also in trying to find as many new vendors as possible. We had to make sure KSB was getting a quality product at a reasonable price,” said Suits.

That wasn’t an easy task as price gouging had become a reality among some of their long-time suppliers. Suits had to juggle between going ahead and purchasing the necessary supplies at inflated prices, or wait and look for a different vendor at a lower cost. Every PPE supply item required a variety of suppliers and different tactics–some of which were unique.

One of the first PPE items that needed to be shored up for KSB was N95 masks. These masks are the gold standard for protecting the healthcare worker or first responder in high risk situations.  They quickly became very difficult to find.

Suits found a way. He was able to reach out to Intalere, KSB’s group purchasing organization (GPO), whose mission is to connect KSB with the right manufacturers, distributors, and vendors that allow them to purchase in volume and receive cost savings.

Near the end of March 2020, Suits talked with his representative and told her that KSB would need to go outside their normal distribution channels to find these masks. As luck would have it, the rep went to college with the vice president of Home Depot.

At the same time, Home Depot was clearing its shelves of the N95s and donating much of them to large Coronavirus hotspots such as California, New York City, New Orleans, and Chicago. Suits asked his Intalere contact if KSB hospital could be put on that list. The rep came through. KSB was told a distribution of N95 masks would be heading its way.

Suits recounted, “I assumed it would be anywhere from 200 to 500 masks. When the order showed up, we received 5,680 masks. It was like Christmas Day for the materials management director.”

Home Depot wasn’t the only source for N95 masks. Two others were much closer to home. The very first N95 mask donation came from Dixon Auto Body with a contribution of 200 masks. Down the road in Amboy, Suits reached out to Jeff Bryant, Amboy’s fire chief, to see if they had any masks available. Bryant is also a part-owner of Dinges Fire Company of Amboy. This proved to be a fruitful relationship as Dinges Fire donated 300 masks. Suits just recently put in an order with the same company for 10,000 masks, “for an outstanding price.” They should arrive at KSB in early to mid-May.

Isolation masks, which are a “mid-grade” product commonly used to protect the patient from the wearer’s respiratory emissions, were another much-needed PPE supply for KSB. Suits ordered and received a donation of 8,000 masks from the federal warehouse–the federal government’s stockpile of disaster supplies.

A rather creative approach was used to acquire goggles which are needed and used during procedures that may result in fluid spray. KSB general surgeon, Dr. David Powers, emailed Suits giving him a heads up on the Goggles for Docs program. Goggles For Docs is a national initiative aimed at repurposing ski goggles for health care workers across the country. Suits made sure the hospital was put on the list. Soon after, notification arrived that KSB would receive 30 sets of ski goggles from different sources around the country. They arrived from ski shops and individual skiers that just wanted to donate their goggles.

Suits bought 1,000 face shields from another local company, Wahl Clipper, in Sterling. Ray Sharp, KSB’s Chief Information Officer, previously worked at Wahl Clipper and still had some connections. They were able to retool and started making face shields.

Another company in Rochelle, IL found that the demand for their distilled liquors and beer was much less during the pandemic. However, Kennay Farms Distillery made lemonade out of lemons by manufacturing their own hand sanitizer. They sold KSB the first case at a very reasonable price and donated the second case.

Partnerships were imperative in finding PPE supplies. Suits was able to utilize the inventory of isolation gowns to trade with a Wisconsin hospital for much-needed face shields, small-sized N95 masks, and infrared thermometers for KSB’s screening tables at the Hospital and Commerce Towers Clinics.

The community has also stepped up during this time. Many individuals have donated homemade masks to be distributed to hospital staff and others have used their personal 3D printers to make mask relief bands, face shields, and face masks.

Tom and his buyer team are on the phone every day looking for new vendors when current vendors are out of stock of needed PPE items. With every new vendor, Suits has to work closely with KSB’s accounting department to get their information in the system. Sometimes these accounting tasks have to be accomplished within 30 minutes so supplies can be purchased quickly.

“It’s a team effort. There are many pieces that need to fall together in order to get what you need,” said Suits.

While KSB has an adequate inventory of PPE supplies for now, Suits has to keep his eye on the medical community’s needs a bit further down the road. KSB is in uncharted territory when it comes to sustainability. Suits is looking at a 96-day scenario that will take the hospital through a possible surge of COVID-19 and flu cases in the fall.

“We’re always looking for more,” comments Suits. “We’re looking at making sure that we have enough supplies not just for now, but for the entire fall season.