Shortages of masks and gloves that marked the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic have spread to a host of other items needed at medical facilities in the United States, from exam tables and heart defibrillators to crutches and IV poles.
It can now take up to five months to get some types of exam tables, for instance, compared to three to six weeks before the pandemic, according to CME Corp, a distributor of medical equipment that handles over 2 million products.
“Right now, because of the supply chain stress that’s being caused by COVID, almost everything is delayed,” said Cindy Juhas, CME’s chief strategy officer. “A lot of the stuff we sell is not sitting in a warehouse where you just call and say send it over. It needs to be built.”
But shortages of raw materials, including plastics, metals, glass, and electronics, have hampered production.
In the case of exam tables, tight supplies of electronic controllers, metal, and even the foam padding used to build them are hampering producers, Juhas said.
The shortfalls - which coincides with a hospital staffing squeeze that is forcing some facilities to ration care during the latest surge in COVID cases - are part of a larger supply-chain disruption that has snarled the movement of goods around the world in the wake of the pandemic.
In many cases, US producers are waiting for parts or finished goods produced overseas which are delayed or waiting in jammed seaports. Last week, the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach announced a record 60 container vessels were waiting offshore to unload their goods.
The auto industry is perhaps the most visible example of how shortages are radiating through the economy and hitting consumers - with car lots outside many factories filled with vehicles waiting for scarce computer chips.
Tight supplies mean higher prices, which has fuelled fears of a wave of sustained inflation.
CME, based in Warwick, Rhode Island, closely monitors its 100 largest suppliers and has seen prices on items from those companies increase from 3 per cent to 20 per cent since the start of the year, depending on the item. Some producers have hiked prices three times this year, said Juhas. Normally, price increases occur just once as the start of the year.
Many of the items in short supply have nothing to do with treating COVID-19. At CME, heart defibrillators that used to take two weeks to deliver now require three months.
“They normally have all the parts, so they put them together and put it on a truck,” she said. “But now they’re just waiting for parts.”
Even mundane items are snagged. Portable plastic toilets - used in hospital rooms so patients don’t have to walk to the bathroom - now are back-ordered three to four months. “That’s an item you usually can order and get right away,” said Juhas, who said she expects the larger array of supply problems to linger well into next year.
“And that’s with a lot of luck,” she added, “and with COVID-19 getting under control".
To be sure, some backlogs are easing. Early in the pandemic, the sudden surge in demand for the special refrigerators and freezers needed to store vaccines overwhelmed producers like Horizon Scientific, a division of Standex International, which operates a factory in Summerville, South Carolina. The refrigerators are distributed by CME.
Brian Shaffer, the company's marketing and business development manager, said it takes three months to deliver its larger, 30-cubic-foot vaccine refrigerators - about double what the company would like. "We still struggle a little bit because of the components that go into them," he said.
But delivery of smaller vaccine refrigerators, which are in demand now for doctor's offices and pharmacies, are back to normal and can be shipped in five or 10 days.