WASHINGTON - The Defense Department now has a four-month supply of personal protective equipment including respirators, surgical masks and gloves to see troops and families through the second wave of COVID-19.

The supplies, which aren't part of the department's pandemic reserves, were procured by the Defense Logistics Agency to help replenish on-hand stock for military services and geographic combatant commands. Much of it will be used for patient care at military treatment facilities and by service members training or deployed, said Army Col. Matthew Voyles, director of DLA Troop Support's medical supply chain.

"The new reality is that all of our service members have got to have personal protective equipment. This PPE will be used across the gamut, from individual units at tactical levels to treatment facilities here stateside and at our overseas locations where all service members and beneficiaries receive care," Voyles said.

Quantities were based on demand prediction models and in coordination with the department's COVID-19 Joint Acquisition Task Force. Widespread material shortages early in the pandemic prompted DLA Troop Support to work with logistics planners at the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Health Agency to create a priority and allocation board made up of members from the defense medical logistics enterprise who meet weekly to prioritize protective equipment orders based on customer missions and the virus's prevalence in local communities, Voyles said. Readiness and contingency contracts such as those managed through the agency's Warstopper program helped the agency meet initial military needs, as well.

Additional protective equipment is being stored at DLA distribution warehouses to fulfill emerging DOD requirements, added Beth McMaster, medical supply chain deputy director.

"None of us truly knows what's coming. We've prepared for the upcoming months and will remain aware of manufacturing disruptions, especially for those items that remain in a fragile support state," she said.

DLA contracting officials continue searching for new vendors that can provide COVID-19 supplies.

The agency has also provided protective equipment and other items to surge test sites and nationwide nursing homes in support of the Department of Health and Human Services. Although the agency already had contracts in place for personal protective items when the pandemic rolled across the United States in March and April, the demand was limited to mostly military medical customers, McMaster said.

"It was a very small part of the medical, surgical and pharmaceutical materials we supported, but we quickly became very hyper-focused as demand dramatically increased and the industrial base struggled to keep up," she continued.

Orders for medical supplies are typically shipped directly to customers as part of the agency's prime vendor program rather than from agency distribution warehouses. However, increased worldwide demands for protective equipment supplied solely through prime vendors led the agency to store and distribute equipment at its locations.

"That was a new muscle movement that hadn't been exercised in a long time, so we had to go out and educate and train our customers to point their electrons to a different source when placing online orders, as well as make internal changes to our business processes," Voyles said. "The adaptability of the entire supply chain team was pretty incredible in making that happen."

DLA's strong partnership with industry and long-term contracts for medical supplies helped the agency transition from a peacetime pace to a global pandemic, McMaster added. But the expertise and personal commitment of acquisition and customer assistance employees made it possible, she said.

"While the scope of this event has been overwhelming, I'm impressed every day by the ability of our staff to come up with innovative solutions and do things differently," she said of her team's support of efforts such as the supply of the USS Mercy and Comfort. "It's been pure dedication from day one."

The agency is also preparing to support the DOD COVID-19 vaccination plan now in development.

Connecticut Media Group