State of Alaska receives $3M worth of PPE from China

A KN95 mask, similar to the ones obtained by the state of Alaska from China in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. (Creative Commons photo by 2C2K Photography)

A chartered FedEx plane packed with personal protective equipment landed Wednesday in Anchorage, according to state health officials.

The shipment included 160,000 face shields, 1.2 million pairs of gloves, 31,000 protective Tyvek suits, 100,000 disposable gowns, and 20,000 shoe covers and head caps, state emergency officials said.

The items came from six different Chinese manufacturers, said Heidi Hedberg, Alaska’s public health director.

“It was huge,” Hedberg said of the effort to acquire the equipment. She added: “It was really a lot of time and energy spent with building the relationship, educating them what our needs were, working through and understanding what’s happening in China and how to navigate through the process of ordering PPE.”

The total cost of the supplies and shipping was just over $3 million, and it’s eligible for federal reimbursement, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state’s emergency response effort.

The effort to acquire the PPE came at the direction of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, as providers’ requests piled up. Medical providers were struggling to get supplies through their normal vendors and were turning to local and state stockpiles, but “we were never able to fulfill all of the requests,” Hedberg said.

“That’s when it became incredibly apparent that we had to order PPE,” she added.

Hedberg said she worked with a consultant to assemble the different orders, which took weeks, as samples had to be shipped back to Alaska so that officials could test their quality. Some didn’t pass — namely those of the N95 masks, which are tighter-fitting and filter out smaller respiratory droplets than surgical masks.

The state ultimately was not able to secure an order of N95 masks in China’s competitive market for supplies amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Hedberg said.

“It’s incredibly volatile over there,” she said. “We would finally find a manufacturer, and then we would finally agree on a price, and then somebody would come in. Other states are doing the exact same thing, and they would have cash on hand and they would purchase it and it would go away.”

At one point, the state was closing in on an order of N95 masks only to lose out to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hedberg said. The foundation didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Instead of N95 masks, Alaska bought 200,000 KN95 masks, which are made to a slightly different standard regulated by the Chinese government. It will keep those masks as backup and use N95 masks obtained by the federal government, Hedberg said.

Once the Chinese suppliers were lined up, Hedberg said, a state contractor with employees in China would watch it being manufactured and placed into boxes. The supplies ended up at a warehouse for quality checks before being loaded on to the FedEx plane.

In Petersburg, the Southeast Alaska fishing town of 3,000 where there have been three confirmed cases of COVID-19, health care providers have had enough supplies so far. But if there’s a local outbreak, there won’t be time to put in an order with the state, so Petersburg officials placed one a few days ago, said Karl Hagerman, the town’s emergency operations center commander.

Protective supplies, he added, “are very hard to come by.”

“If the state has procured a large amount of PPE for distribution to all the EOCs across our large state, I think that’s a very reassuring fact,” he said. “And we will look forward to receiving that PPE as needed.”