The importance of the medical supply chain during COVID-19

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dion McCall
  • 21st Healthcare Operations Squadron

Coronavirus Disease 2019, also known as COVID-19, is an infectious disease caused by a virus that can spread from person to person. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the virus outbreak a global pandemic. As of April 26, 2020, the U.S. at a glance had reported a total of 957,875 cases according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


This pandemic has presented significant challenges on the 21st Medical Group, the health and wellness of the staff and, most importantly, the patients. But for the expert medical logisticians of the Air Force Medical Service, “Whatever It Takes!” is the career field motto. They are the go-to experts of the medical supply chain, which is essential during normal times for any healthcare system, and when battling a global pandemic.  To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 locally, these medical logisticians have worked tirelessly on vendor sourcing, process controls, and inventory management in order to ensure sufficient stocks of critical medical supplies for patients and medical staff.


Everything that arrives at or used by a healthcare facility comes through medical logistics. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of medical logistics operations, and the importance of established supply chain relationships with reliable vendors. The demand for personal protective equipment increased substantially due to COVID-19. PPE helps protect healthcare personnel from potentially infectious people and materials that is a risk within healthcare operations. These items include hand sanitizer, hand soap, face masks, medical gloves and sterilization solutions.


“The day-to-day operations shifted drastically,” said Tech. Sgt. Andre Elam, 21st Medical Logistics Flight non-commissioned officer in charge. “Our priority was quickly shifted on procuring and sustaining PPE requirements in response to the pandemic.”


Due to the high demand for PPE and the capabilities of the primary vendor, requirements became harder to fill. This caused the leadership in Medical Logistics to change their supply chain process and outsource to other vendors.


This was a potential risk to outsource to new vendors due to the lack of history, unknown product reliability and price inflation. They quickly started outsourcing requirements through some of their most reliable sources, and these vendors were able to fulfill most, if not all, of the mission essential PPE, enabling sustained stock levels.


Normal processes and priority levels were modified by the Medical Logistics Flight, changing how supplies were ordered and distributed in the medical facility. Before COVID-19, section-level supply custodians were able to order PPE requirements through multiple accounts using Defense Medical Logistics Standard Support, the DoD’s global medical supply system. After realizing the impact of the pandemic, the flight changed their process controls and began developing strategies for optimizing PPE supplies. 


Supply custodians were no longer able to order PPE directly through the DMLSS account. Instead, the department used a single account to process and track inventory. All PPE requests were channeled through group leadership or the infection control point of contact. This system established a unified procedure to manage resources and ensure each section within the facility was supplied with the required equipment to deliver safe and quality patient care.


As a whole, Medical Logistics has seen a decrease in normal operations as they began to increase their support to the rest of the clinic during this pandemic. Medical Logistician themselves also had to adhere to precautions and preventative measures for COVID-19, such as limiting staff to minimal manning and implementing safe physical distancing.


“This change did not cause a negative impact to their workload because the medical group was all following the same guidelines,” said Airman 1st Class Michael Stovall, 21st Medical Logistics Flight technician.


Some other precautions included limiting foot traffic within their section, and requiring prior approval for non-clinical personnel to pick up supplies. Staff stated that the mission priority also changed the timeliness of non-PPE supply request. Order requests were still being submitted; however, items such as office supplies and other medical equipment, were now processed on a different priority level. Overall, the Medical Logistics Flight maintained readiness by changing their daily operations and processes in order to help fight the pandemic.


Ultimately, their goal is to keep staff members and patients safe during this worldwide pandemic. This responsibility is extremely important to mission readiness. The leadership staff within the Logistics department are in the process of creating innovative protocols and measures to implement to help respond to other possible situations.


One of the main priorities in their contingency plan is establishing and sustaining a good supply chain relationship with a diverse portfolio of reliable vendors. This will allow them to be more flexible in how they support the mission’s needs. Additionally, they are in the process of developing a tracking system that will help manage inventory during a global pandemic. This will serve as continuity and provide a tool that can be used in the future. And as a team, keeping all personnel trained, equipped, and capable to lead and respond during a time of crisis will remain.


COVID-19 has changed operations across the globe, and has shown room for growth and preparedness in all areas of the supply chain.  For the members of the Medical Logistics Flight, they have demonstrated their ability to be quick thinking and fast acting, despite the challenges, ready to do Whatever It Takes.