Shortages of commodities and supplies that were once taken for granted have been commonplace during the pandemic. Toilet paper, computer chips, cars, lumber and pet food have all been on the shortage list.
But a shortage of medical supplies is creating problems that go well beyond inconvenience.
Penny Picard Sampson of Unity is one of those who has been hard-pressed to find the medical supplies that help her get through her day. Sampson, 54, began suffering from diverticulitis nearly 20 years ago, a condition that causes infection in the digestive tract.
Over the years, it has caused big complications, including chronic yeast infections on her skin and fistulas, or holes in her abdomen, which leak fluids constantly.
Sampson bandages her stomach every day with a sterile, absorbent wound dressing that allows her to be as active as she can and to do her work as a town municipal officer. Recently, though, it has been difficult to find enough of the supplies she needs.
A couple of weeks ago, she ran out.
“At that point, it’s figuring out, ‘All right, which towels do I cut up,’” she said. “While people are worried about their Christmas toys, I’m worried about getting my medical supplies.”
For Sampson and others who can’t find the supplies they need, from wheelchairs to wound dressings, this shortage can affect their mobility, independence and quality of life.
It’s a national problem that is playing out in every state. In Utah, hospitals are collecting used crutches, walkers and canes to alleviate the shortage caused by supply-chain issues. A pharmacy in Michigan is having difficulties getting enough inhalers for its customers. And a recall of CPAP and other machines made by Philips Respironics has left millions of people with sleep apnea scrambling to find alternatives.
Exam tables, heart defibrillators, some prescription drugs, IV solutions and wheelchairs — and much more — also have been snared in the supply chain troubles.
“This is a problem,” Claude Levesque, the owner of Care Services Co. in Palmyra, said. “We didn’t feel it so much last year. This year, it’s really getting to be bad. There’s some items that we just can’t get anymore.”
And that’s a concern, because his company is the leading supplier of custom powered wheelchairs in Maine. If they can’t get items it means that some Mainers might have a harder time getting around than they ordinarily would.
Custom wheelchairs can be complex machines that are made up of many different components manufactured in many places, including overseas. If one part isn’t available, the item is incomplete, he said.
When orders can be fulfilled, it’s also taking much longer than it used to.
“In the past, once we got an approval [from an insurer], we’d order it and get it in about two weeks,” Levesque said. “Now, that two weeks can extend to two months.”
Shortages and delays are stressors affecting people’s lives, he said.
“Everybody’s feeling the pinch,” Levesque said.
The supply chain issues aren’t just making it hard to get durable medical equipment and home health supplies. It’s also affecting medical supplies used in hospital settings, according to Matt Marston, the vice president of pharmacy for Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 109 drugs are listed in short supply nationally, and the American Medical Association is calling the shortage an urgent public health crisis that threatens patient care and safety.
“We are seeing, much like the rest of the nation, allocation and drug shortages,” Marston said. “COVID-19 has impacted the volume of hospitalized patients, and the supply chain has been constrained.”
It’s been challenging for the pharmacists to find enough electrolyte solution, pain management products, anesthetics and IV solution for patients in need.
“It’s been pretty wide-reaching,” he said. “It’s been hard to predict what will be the next shortage at any given time.”