Thousands of masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, and more. Since the pandemic began, Virginia Tech has been stocking up on necessary personal protective equipment for the campus community, even in the midst of national and global shortages. Come August, when faculty, staff, and students return to campus, the university will be ready.

Mary Helmick, director of procurement for Virginia Tech, leads the university’s PPE ordering and distribution plans. She discussed the ways that the university is working to create a safe environment for Hokies.

Q. When did Virginia Tech start ordering necessary personal protective equipment for campus?

Helmick: Very early in the pandemic, like most consumers, the university was experiencing shortages of common protective supplies and equipment in the supply chain nationally and globally. In those first weeks, we put a call out to university departments to see what they may already have in their inventories. We asked for those departments to consider volunteering their PPE products to a centralized emergency stockpile. The campus responded and that initial stockpiling of PPE got us through the first few weeks while we worked to find the products needed to protect those who were managing emergency operations. 

By late March, the university’s administration supported a decision to actively start purchasing PPE in volume as an early preparation for future and subsequent phases of operations. 

Also, our team in Procurement reached out to several of our strategic lab supply partners that the university had established long-term supply relationships with.  

Q. How much PPE has the university ordered?

Helmick: We’ve bought over 600,000 disposable surgical masks and over 50,000 cloth masks. We've acquired close to 30,000 bottles of individual hand sanitizer and 20,000 bottles of disinfectant spray. Over 2,300 additional touchless hand sanitizers units were also ordered and installed across the campus. 

We continue to acquire certified N95 [masks] for lab operations, although they are among the hardest products to acquire as they are needed in the medical facilities as a priority throughout the country.

I have to say the inventory numbers were staggering when we started projecting what we needed in March. Then that number grew as we reached out to the departments and asked them to submit to us what they thought they may need.

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Q. What items have been difficult to stock?

Helmick: Besides the N95/KN95 masks needed for normal lab operations, one commodity that is challenging for us right now is nitrile gloves. We use hundreds of thousands of gloves here at Virginia Tech in a nonpandemic situation, and right now, they're very hard to come by. Medical facilities are experiencing shortages and it's hard from a higher-ed perspective to get our hands on large quantities. We’ve been accumulating them as we could find them. We have an ample quantity, and we'll continue to press hard to make sure that we're back-filling that inventory. 

We have had to all but abandon our efforts to acquire disinfectant wipes, as they continue to be on very short supply. We increased the volume of disinfectant spray bottles purchased to compensate for the lack of availability in disinfectant wipes.

Q. How do you know that the items that you are purchasing will fight against the coronavirus?

Helmick: We partner with Environmental Health and Safety here at Virginia Tech to determine if a certain product is optimum to fight against the virus. As we heard products were available, EHS would assist us by analyzing those products to make sure that we were buying exactly what we needed. There is a lot of product being sold that is not effective so this is not something we could cut corners on.  

Q. Who can use the supplies? Faculty, staff, and students?

Helmick: Our intention is to make sure this PPE remains available for whoever may need it to stay safe as they're doing business or coming to class or teaching class or just doing normal operations of the university. This PPE inventory is here to protect all that are affiliated with the university. So that would include faculty, staff, and students here on our Blacksburg campus as well as at university facilities across the commonwealth.

Q. How do people on campus obtain the equipment they need? And what is the cost?

Helmick: Departments can go on HokieMart. They place requests for PPE through an internal service request form in that system. It goes through all the normal approval processes and electronically transfers to the surplus warehouse where the product is picked and prepared for pickup. At this point in time, the university is handling the cost of the acquisition and distribution of PPE centrally to lessen the burden on the departments.

As of today, our inventory counts are where we had projected they needed to be and we're able to allocate what departments need. But we cannot predict the future in supply chain management with this pandemic. We are watching everything very closely every day. Because of this, it is very important for the entire university to utilize PPE efficiently to be sure the inventory can support the entire university for the duration of supply chain shortages.

Q. How can students obtain PPE?

Helmick: In order to maximize the supply of PPE, all university community members should bring their own cloth face covering when coming to campus. Students with specific PPE needs or questions may reach out to Hokie Wellness by emailing hokiewellness@vt.edu or calling (540) 231-2233. Residential students may also connect with their resident advisors. Every effort will be made to ensure PPE is available for students and employees.

Click here to learn more about the PPE ordering and distribution process through Virginia Tech Procurement. Questions may be directed to 540-231-6221 or hokiemart@vt.edu.

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone