When the primary distributor of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies to The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) ran out of inventory, the UTHealth procurement team acted quickly to source needed materials and fill the gap to make sure the university and its more than 140 associated clinics have the gear needed to continue fighting COVID-19.

Procurement Services, led by its Assistant Vice President Eric Williams, reallocated eight staff members, about 14% of the department, to follow leads to find PPE materials on the global market, and converted space into a warehouse to store them – essentially filling the role distributors used to play prior to the epidemic.

Typically, procurement negotiates contracts and pricing with vendors, and the clinics then order what they need, as they need it, from the approved supplier. The clinics across UTHealth, UT Physicians, and UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center (UTHealth HCPC) are responsible for their own inventory and ordering. COVID-19 created a global shortage of necessary PPE, and drained the shelves of UTHealth’s contracted supplier seemingly overnight.

“The crisis hit, and our lifeline was cut,” Williams said. “Our primary distributor could no longer get product. You have clinics stranded, basically, with limited PPE. We stepped up and said, ‘We are going to take control of this and establish a process. We are going to do what it takes to get our clinics PPE. We got creative, and all of a sudden we are a central ordering and distribution center, which we have never done before, but it’s working.”

UTHealth put together a PPE task force to start sourcing equipment. Procurement was joined by representatives from the UTHealth Office of Safety, Health, Environment, and Risk Management (SHERM); Asset Management; Employee Health; and the Center for Laboratory Animal Medicine and Care; as well as from McGovern Medical School departments in pathology, neurosciences, and anesthesia. Clinical partners include UT Physicians, UTHealth School of Dentistry, UTHealth HCPC, UTHealth WIC Program, and UT Physicians Gulf States Hemophilia and Thrombophilia Center.

The need for the protective gear was conveyed to the public, and the community stepped up to help its medical community with donations. Laura Dozier with the Office of Development helped with facilitating donations from the community to the university, with all of the inventory now managed by the university’s shipping and receiving crew.

“Our people are sourcing products, and that means we are calling everybody and anybody that can provide us product. For the first few weeks it was insanity trying to find PPE,” Williams said.

Procurement is also successfully weeding through scams. Williams said his team has seen boxes that were labeled as one thing but contained another, poorly constructed materials that would not meet standards of care, and scams that required half of the payment up front before the products could be inspected. Procurement is working with the Environmental Health and Safety team within SHERM to ensure the products meet standards to keep hospital staff and the community they serve safe from COVID-19.

PPE often is sourced through brokers and manufacturers in China, who will only sell in bulk. Williams said there are minimum requirements that are far more than what UTHealth would need alone, so the entities in the Texas Medical Center have combined their buying power to make shipments directly from China financially viable. Once the orders come in, they are split up among the entities.

The TMC has been able to order entire containers of product and have it shipped directly to Houston. In one instance, the group was able to charter a flight to deliver the goods.

“We had 100,000 surgical masks delivered recently,” Williams said. “We are real excited when we get stuff like that. It’s a hot market, and until you have the product in your warehouse, it’s not real. It’s not a win until you have your hands on it. The PPE market has been a world of its own. I’ve never been through anything like it before.”

Now, when clinics need more supplies, they’re able to obtain them directly from procurement’s warehouse.

“We created a whole database for inventory management,” Williams said. “Clinic managers fill out how much they have and how much they need. We use that to fill orders that are shipped out. This is not something we typically do, but we took this on because of the product shortages. We had to get PPE to our clinics. We had to find it, source it, manage the inventory, and ship it out.”

Williams said the university has secured enough PPE to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. The team is now working to secure more supplies to aid the reopening effort, as more supplies will be needed as clinics begin offering elective procedures.

“We have had a direct impact on patient care by being able to support the clinical staff who are treating patients. With this pandemic, we’ve realized how essential supplies are and how they directly impact our community,” Williams said. “Normally procurement is behind the scenes ordering and paying for goods and services, and trying to execute contracts that drive value and save money for the institution.”

The TMC has weathered more than a few storms, but this one has uniquely brought the medical community together.

“I’ve never seen anything where we have collaborated so much,” Williams said. “In the first few weeks, before we started getting supplies in, we had certain clinical areas that had a lot of inventory sharing with others. The School of Dentistry, for example, shipped product to HCPC and UT Physicians. That was really cool.”

And in the process, UTHealth has become closer to its neighbors.

“During disasters, you get to know your neighbors,” he said. “The collaboration with other TMC member institutions has supported working better together, sharing information, and sharing best practices. The bond we have formed going through this will put us in a position to be able to do more in the future.”