Kansas is looking high and low for gear to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19

Nitrile gloves are among protective gear in short supply. Photo credit Celia Llopis-Jepsen/Kansas News Service.

By Celia Llopis-Jepsen

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas is struggling to get its hands on the millions of N95 masks, surgical gowns and other protective gear it wants to shield first responders and health care workers against COVID-19.

Gov. Laura Kelly told reporters Monday that Kansas has been pursuing three routes to get more of those supplies, along with testing kits and ventilators.

The Strategic National Stockpile

Kelly said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has parceled out supplies from the national stockpile to states based on their 2010 Census numbers. Kansas has received 90% of its share, Kelly said, and has been told by federal authorities that it won’t receive the rest.

Kansas has been passing along those supplies to counties based on census counts. That work should be finished early this week. County health departments will distribute the supplies locally.

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Kansas has also asked FEMA for emergency supplies. Kelly says her administration has filed seven requests over the past two weeks, but FEMA hasn’t filled them yet.

The state is seeking testing supplies from FEMA, in addition to more than 22.3 million gloves, 4.6 million N95 masks, 1.2 million face shields, 10.7 million surgical masks and 500 ventilators.

“Hospitals and first responders have been already rationing” their protective gear, Kelly said. “For perspective, one of our major hospitals in the state uses 220,000 gloves per day” even after scaling back elective care.

The private sector

Kansas has had modest success buying supplies from private companies, but through-the-roof global demand has led vendors to postpone or cancel a number of the state’s orders.

“We have also not been immune from the rising costs,” Kelly said. “An N95 mask that a couple of weeks ago cost us $1.85 now costs well over $4.”

The most recent state budget included $15 million to help the state’s emergency management agency buy protective gear amid the pandemic, she said.

Kansas has pending orders for 3.9 million N95 masks, 1.8 million surgical masks, 2 million gloves, 4 million gowns, 2 million shoe covers and 2 million face shields.

Kansas has reached out to in-state research labs, auto body shops, tattoo shops and more in search of everything from chemicals needed for COVID-19 testing to medical-grade masks and gloves. It is also looking for Kansas manufacturers that could make these supplies locally.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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