COVID-19 changed “PPE” from a little-known medical acronym to a household word as health care systems worldwide scrambled for medical supplies.

Novant Health’s supply chain team was forced to be creative and act rapidly long before the virus landed in North Carolina. The intensity ramped up in January in the search for personal protective equipment (PPE) – masks, face shields, gloves, gowns and goggles – designed to protect against the spread of infection.

“We had to be nimble and repurpose our team of sourcing managers (15 team members) from focusing on their assigned categories to almost entirely focusing on finding new sources for PPE and other COVID-19-related materials,” said Tyler Ross, logistics chief on the Novant Health Incident Command team. He represents the Supply Chain team for emergency preparedness planning and response.

They learned other parts of the world that had been hit hard by the virus were already causing a strain on the supply chain. Also, many of the products Novant Health uses are manufactured in China, where the virus shut down many manufacturing facilities.

supplychain woman boxes
Some supplies arrive and depart by hand.

“We have dealt with more than 300 suppliers in total, and continue to vet new ones every day,” Ross said. ”We’ve had our fair share of scammers and part of the challenge has been sorting the “players” from the “pretenders.”

Ross oversees the Novant Health Logistics Center in Kannapolis, North Carolina, a well-organized, efficient warehouse where supplies roll in, are categorized and get shipped out. The building operates roughly 20 hours a day.

“We stay until it all gets done,” Ross said.

For Novant Health, the warehouse is one of the links in the supply chain. Upstream in the chain are supplies and distributors, Ross said. Downstream are Novant Health team members and patients.

“We think about it as a linear process of getting products from A to B,” he said.

Ross credits the Supply Chain leadership team, which despite facing obstacles, continues to be effective. They’re Mark Welch (senior vice president, Supply Chain), Mike Bianchin, (vice president, Supply Chain), Martha Bergstedt (vice president, Strategic Sourcing), Nick Walker (logistics center inventory manager), Tony Manning (logisitics center operations manager) and David SaNogueira (sourcing manager), who is most tasked with finding the critical PPE supplies.

Novant Health shifted about 40 non-supply chain team members to help throughout the supply chain, both at the logistics center and in the hospitals themselves.

“We’re making sure that we are adjusting our actions daily depending on the fluidity of the situation,” Ross said. “It is difficult, but I think we've got some great folks here that are helping us make the best decisions we can with the information we have.”

supply chain highrise
Forklifts are used for top-shelf duty.

The warehouse contains about 4,500 products, tightly displayed and reachable. The team of 50 working there fill orders sometimes by reaching for items on lower shelves. Others zip around on forklifts to snag items on shelving that stretches to about 18 feet high. Orders arrive, and often exit, via truck bays in the rear of the building.

Inventory ranges from simple items like paper to complex surgical supplies costing thousands of dollars apiece.

“The Novant Health Logistics center supplies about 75 to 80% of all products that are delivered to our clinics, hospitals, surgery centers, and anything with the Novant Health name on it,” Ross said. “Anything and everything you can imagine that you would see in a clinical setting comes out of this building.”

Ross credited Novant Health’s inventory team, which has to make tough decisions with hundreds of thousands of dollars of risk. The pressure is heightened during the coronavirus pandemic because there’s uncertainty. Can items be replaced in a timely manner? Is a backup plan in place? What if a supplier or distributor’s status changes?

It’s a constant search for the sweet spot of having the correct items for the appropriate time and location, a skill Ross honed as a logistics officer during five years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including two deployments to Afghanistan.

“My mindset right now is very much how it was during a deployment,” he said. “We're in this fight for the long haul, we're going to get through it together and we're going to be engaged the whole way.”

Local communities also have contributed. Charlotte’s abundance of breweries has led several to pivot and begin making hand sanitizer for health systems, easing the pressure of that search. Breweries have the equipment and ingredients to do so, Ross said.

supplychain man on floor
The logistics center contains about 4,500 different products.

Another shining example is Charlotte Latin High School, which has partnered with Charlotte MEDI to produce face shields using 3D printers. They also make cloth face masks. So far, they’ve produced more than 30,000 items for Novant Health.

Hundreds of other donations roll in daily, as community members try to help in any way they can. Ross beams recalling the donations, and smiles wider when he glances around the spacious warehouse.

“No matter how much planning or data we pull or decisions we make, none of this is possible without our team members who are here every day making it happen,” he said. “Products don't magically arrive at a facility. Several human beings in the chain have to make that happen.”

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