The pursuit of supplies used to help the COVID-19 response in Lewis County remains a fluid process, county officials said this week.
In Monday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting, Lewis County Public Works Director Josh Metcalf mentioned that the county’s supply chain for personal protective equipment has “dried up” over the course of the past couple of weeks.
The county received a large shipment of PPE on April 8 that was distributed to the Riverside Fire Authority. In a meeting with the BOCC that week, Deputy Director of Emergency Management Andy Caldwell suggested that the following days would be an indication of the supply chain’s state.
“I think next Monday, as the request goes in, if we receive another shipment, then we can expect to receive those regular shipments,” Caldwell said on April 8. “This might just be a one-off that was an answer to a lot of political pressure that’s been applied here in the last couple of weeks.”
According to Metcalf, those shipments have, in fact, become smaller as of late.
“We’ve received very little in the last couple of shipments,” Metcalf said during Monday’s meeting.
He also added the county is experiencing a shortage of hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray, but said the facilities group is “actively looking” for new supply.
Still, Caldwell said he’s remaining optimistic.
“Part of the reason our shipments have been reduced is the fact that we got such big shipments, that a lot of people who have asked for things, their asks were fulfilled,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to say it’s dried up completely, it’s just the state did a really good job of fulfilling these great big orders and I am optimistic that things are getting better.”
That optimism is partially rooted in the drop in prices, according to Caldwell. He said that the price on surgical masks have gone from 80 cents per unit to 52 cents per mask over the course of the last couple of weeks.
That, he indicated, is a positive sign for the county’s prospect of maintaining inventory for during and even after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We just want to do the best we can for our community,” Caldwell said. “One thing I think gets lost in this, we want to make sure that as the government reopens, our cities have sufficient supplies for whatever they need moving forward. It’s not just the medical community, it’s trying to figure out how we get everybody what they need so we can get back up and running again.”
Caldwell’s understanding is the supply chain issues can be traced back to depleted supplies at the state level versus unprecedented demand for isolation gowns, face shields and masks, which have become the most desireable supplies. He says the lack of those essential items has forced some vendors to go through China to get them, which has led to logistical hurdles.
“It’s a little bit scary, because some of the vendors, you don’t know them that well,” Caldwell said. “You’re trying to maintain that fiduciary responsibility and shop the cheapest price you can, yet still have someone who’s reputable.”
Additionally, Metcalf and Caldwell both confirmed that the state has informed the county not to expect financial assistance on the leftover 25 percent of costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic not covered by FEMA. Originally, the county was told they could expect that assistance and that now, they shouldn’t expect even the lesser 12.5 percent coverage.
The federal government is covering 75 percent of the cost share through FEMA assistance, although Budget Manager Becky Butler says there is currently a push for federal money to cover 100 percent of the response costs.
“That’s (federal coverage expansion) still in discussion,” Butler said on Monday. “We haven’t gotten specifics on what they’re pulling away from as far as the 25 percent, if that’s just for the supplies or shipping out, or if that’s going to apply to other FEMA related funding projects.”
According to Caldwell, the money set aside was expected to be enough at first, but it went faster than those at the state level would have anticipated. He said he doesn’t blame anyone and because he’s seen the prices of the equipment, he understands why the decision had to be made.
“It’s not that that money disappeared, it’s just that when that money was allocated, they didn’t know it was going to go so fast,” Caldwell said. “I think what happened was so unprecedented, that the money they thought that they set aside to be sufficient for everyone’s needs is already gone. We’re still in the middle of this, trying to make purchases, to make us whole.”
Despite the hurdles, though, Caldwell continues to approach the situation with a glass-half-full perspective. He said the situation has helped the county be mindful of spending.
“We have to look for the positives in this,” Caldwell said. “We’ve learned some more effective and efficient ways to do things through this. It’s an unfortunate way to learn things, but there are some positives that we need to be able to take away from this and actually, we need to be able to employ them moving forward, as well.”