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Dixon hospital's wheeler-dealer-in-chief finding, procuring much-needed PPE

Editor's note: Following is the third in a four-part series KSB Hospital in Dixon is providing to give the public a glimpse into what is going on behind the scenes as the hospital takes on the challenges of managing the coronavirus outbreak.

DIXON – KSB Hospital has its very own Radar O'Reilly.

During the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for personal protective equipment – the gear used to protect front line health care workers from infection – jumped to an all-time high. Enter Tom Suits, KSB’s director of materials management – since only late last year.

“I’m a rookie,” Suits said with a laugh.

He was busy getting up to speed with the hospital's local and national vendors, learning a new computer system and preparing for a fiscal-year that's right around the corner.

Within 2 months, everything changed.

The pandemic changed everything. It wasn’t long before KSB received notice from its distributors that the supply lines would be drastically reducing numbers.

During pre-pandemic times, the hospital was able to order and receive 100% of its needed supplies. Within a week of the COVID-19 crisis starting, that percentage dropped to 80% and then quickly down to 60%. This reduction included not only PPE, but also 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," Suits said. "It means changing gears in a hurry.

"Before COVID-19, we had a normal stock of 1,600 isolation gowns. Today we have thousands. 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."

That wasn’t an easy task – price gouging was now a reality with some of the longtime suppliers. Suits had to decide whether to buy necessary supplies at inflated prices, or wait to find a less expensive vendor. Every PPE supply item required a variety of suppliers and different tactics, some unique.

One of the first PPE supplies that KSB needed to shore up was N95 masks. These masks are the gold standard for protecting the health care worker or first responder in high-risk situations. They quickly became difficult to find.

Suits found a way. He reached out to Intalere, KSB’s group purchasing organization, whose job is to connect KSB with the right manufacturers, distributors, and vendors to buy in bulk and save money.

Near the end of March, Suits talked with an Intalere representative and told her that KSB would need to go outside its normal distribution channels to find the masks.

As luck would have it, the rep went to college with the vice president of Home Depot, which at the time was clearing its shelves of the N95s and donating many of them to large coronavirus hot spots such as California, New York City, New Orleans, and Chicago.

Suits asked her to get KSB on that list, and she came through. KSB was told a distribution of N95 masks would be heading its way.

“I assumed it would be anywhere from 200 to 500 masks," he said. "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 KSB's N95 masks. Two others were much closer to home. The very first N95 donation, 300 masks, came from Dixon Auto Body.

Suits also reached out to Jeff Bryant, Amboy’s fire chief, to see if they had any masks available. Bryant also is one of the Dinges Fire Co. owners, which donated 300 masks. Suits just recently put in an order with Dinges for 10,000 masks, “for an outstanding price.” They should arrive at KSB any day.

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. Suits procured a donation of 8,000 masks from the federal government’s stockpile of disaster supplies.

A rather creative approach was used to acquire goggles, which are 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, and 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 who donated 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 and still had some connections. The company was able to retool and started making face shields.

When Kennay Farms Distilling in Rochelle saw a drop in demand for their distilled liquors and beer, the company took lemons and made lemonade – or more specifically, hand sanitizer. They sold KSB the first case at a reasonable price and donated the second case.

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

The community also has stepped up, with many people donating homemade masks to hospital staff and others using 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. With every new vendor, Suits works closely with KSB’s accounting department to get its information in the system, sometimes 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,” Suits said.

While KSB has enough PPE supplies for now, Suits must keep his eye on the medical community’s needs farther 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," he said. "We’re looking at making sure that we have enough supplies not just for now, but for the entire fall season."

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