'I’ve never experienced anything like this'

The New England Journal of Medicine, trucks to trick the FBI, and calling your congressman. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

We've been hearing stories for a couple of months now about hospitals and health care workers running short of basic medial protective equipment: gloves, gowns, N95 masks, and the like.

There have even been stories of the government interfering after they manage to acquire equipment—somehow interrupting the deals and taking the supplies.

Now there’s an account that stands out, because it comes not from a news site, or some guy's post on Twitter, but instead from the New England Journal of Medicine.

In a little over 600 words, Dr. Andrew W. Artenstein went on the record and explained what his hospital had to go through to get a single shipment of N95 masks.

The whole thing reads like a cross between the counterterrorism tactics diplomats are taught to use on their daily routines, and a grown-up version of how my college friends and I used to smuggle beer into our dorm for parties.

In other words, it’s no way to supply a hospital during a pandemic—a play in nine acts, so to speak, according to Artenstein:

  1. Our story begins with Baystate Medical Center in Massachusetts scrounging for “gowns, gloves, face masks, goggles, face shields, and N95 respirators” while it treats Covid-19 patients.

  2. Normally, the top doctors and executives would leave these issues to the supply chain team, but the situation is dire enough that everyone becomes involved. They adapt to “a new normal, exploring every lead, no matter how unusual.”

  3. They wind up in some “bizarre and convoluted” deals to find key personal protective equipment, “many involving large sums of money.” Sometimes, Artenstein says his team gets “outbid or outmuscled” by the federal government.

  4. Example: “An acquaintance of a friend of a team member” tips them off about a big cache of KN95 masks (the “K” indicates that they’re Chinese-made masks). The cost is five times what they’d normally pay, but nothing right now is normal.

  5. They vet the shipment and obtain samples. It all looks promising, so a team of four from the hospital flies down to “a small airport near an industrial warehouse in the mid-Atlantic region,” to check out the stock.

  6. On the way, they learn that the shipment is only one-quarter of what they were promised. Some is better than none, however, and they “desperately” need any masks they can get. So, Artenstein drives down himself to sign off on the deal.

  7. Now, things things get ridiculous: Afraid that their masks could be intercepted as contraband, the hospital workers arrange for two semi-trailer trucks, “cleverly marked as food-service vehicles” to disguise the contents. But before they can pay for the masks and load the trucks, the FBI shows up.

  8. Artenstein and his team are questioned. Ultimately, they’re let go. But, they learn that the Department of Homeland Security is considering “redirecting” their supplies. They call their congressman (U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who is also chairman of the powerful Ways and Means committee), who intervenes.

  9. Finally, they get on the road, sending the two semi-trailers on different routes back to Massachusetts—apparently so that if the government intercepts and confiscates one truck, at least the other one might make it home.

They finally arrive in Massachusetts and unload their haul after midnight, so I guess there’s a happy ending in that respect. But, clearly there’s something wrong here.

It’s not just that a top doctors have to drop what they’re doing to scrounge for medical supplies and go on nighttime road trips, when you might assume there are other things they should be doing.

It’s that at every stage, these hospital workers basically assume that they’re going to get ripped off, and that the government will interfere with their efforts to keep staff safe and treat patients, rather than help them.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Artenstein told The Boston Globe. “I’ve certainly never been involved at this level of the supply chain, and I can tell you, it’s very foreign for most physicians and most physician leaders.”

7 other things worth your time

  • Trump suspends all immigration to the U.S. temporarily. (BBC)

  • This is unconfirmed, but CNN was reporting last night that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was in grave condition after surgery. (CNN)

  • Amazon makes $10,000 a second, at least if analysts’ predictions that they’ll report $73 billion in quarterly revenue next week are right, and you do the math. (The Guardian)

  • Here’s what the stimulus checks with President Trump’s name on them will look like when they go out. (Axios).

  • A new report suggests many more people than thought may have Covid-19 without symptoms. That could mean it’s less deadly, but also that it’s really hard to know who’s contagious. “None of these numbers can be fully trusted,” said Dr. Michael Mina of Harvard’s School of Public Health. (Associated Press)

  • I didn’t know this could even happen, but some oil futures went negative Monday, selling for less than zero. It’s not that oil itself has no value, but that these future contacts would require physically taking possession of oil. With low demand and world economic factors, there aren’t many places to store it. (Barons)

  • Pressure is on states to ease lockdowns, and Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina have already started. (New York Times via MSN) Related: White House tells federal workers to get ready to go back to the office. (Bloomberg)

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