Snohomish County’s global hunt for 7 million medical gloves

Across the country, health officials are now facing a global shortage of medical gloves, which are key to protecting health care workers handling COVID-19 patients firsthand.

In a heads-up play by Snohomish County, the emergency management team predicted there would be a future shortage coinciding with a fall surge in cases and ordered more than 7 million nitrile gloves on June 29. But several twists put the shipment in jeopardy.

Working with Beaverton, Oregon-based vendor Complete Threat Preparedness, Snohomish County procured the gloves from Vietnam. They watched as the order went from Vietnam to Thailand before sitting there for a period of time. Then, the shipment headed to Hong Kong.

That’s where the trouble really began, according to county Emergency Management Director Jason Biermann. After months of waiting, a customs inspection in Hong Kong revealed that the needed medical gloves were knock offs, not up to quality standards.

"We expected some delays with the rise in cases and the strain on the supply system, but when we got the notification that the shipment had been turned down, it was unnerving," Biermann said.

By then, it was already October with no gloves in hand. After alerting the vendor, the company scoured the world for more gloves and found millions on a ship headed to Florida, where the original purchaser no longer needed it. 

Once the shipment landed, it was loaded on multiple semi-trucks and transported to an undisclosed warehouse in Snohomish County. 

"We had folks, including volunteers from our fire and EMS community, who showed up at our warehouse to help offload the trucks to make sure we had them," Biermann said. "Sort of an early Christmas gift of sorts in COVID time."

Stacked in the warehouse, just before the New Year, were 7.6 million gloves, which cost the county $1.53 million. So far in the pandemic, the county has spent nearly $20 million in federal CARES Act funding procuring personal protective equipment and other supplies. 

"It’s not for us, it's for our community, it's for our first responders and our health care providers and the folks who are providing long term care," Biermann said. 

It was a predicted shortage, a 6-month journey and a product of a partnership that brought in-demand gloves to Snohomish County.

"We have a really strong team who did some good work and some good research and some good analysis about what we might need in the fall, and a helpful and supportive vendor who came through for us," Biermann said.

With pallets on pallets of gloves, Snohomish County will likely not experience the same shortage seen in many jurisdictions around the country. In fact, to deal with the global nitrile glove shortage, the CDC recently updated guidelines to allow for reusing the disposable gloves between patients, as long as they are properly sanitized.