Three women are helping put each others blue medical protective gowns on
n this Dec. 8, 2020, file photo, heath care workers help each other with their personal protective equipment at the start of their shift at a mobile testing location for COVID-19, in Auburn. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Much of the personal protective equipment Maine purchased with federal money early in the COVID-19 pandemic stayed in storage until last summer, something a watchdog called a side effect of poor accounting during a scramble for gear.

The gear, which is known as PPE and includes gloves, masks, face shields and other gear used by medical professionals to reduce virus exposure, was in short supply nationally after the pandemic hit Maine in March 2020. Those shortages remained into that summer and led to a frantic situation in which states and medical providers were scrambling to get more.

Using federal money, Maine purchased $43 million in PPE from 2020 to 2021, according to the annual state government audit released in March. By the end of June 2021, $26 million was in storage. The office of State Auditor Jacob Norton said the administration of Gov. Janet Mills was not properly tracking inventory or expenses in violation of accounting standards.

The problems are products of a flawed national response and a frantic ramp-up. But the state’s failures may have led to misreported expenses and heightened the risk of expiring equipment and wasted federal money. Experts say Maine’s problems could make it difficult to mobilize quickly in the future if equipment is needed again here or elsewhere.

“It goes beyond economics and state government management because there are health care worker lives at stake,” said Yana Rodgers, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey who studied the contributing factors that led to shortages of PPE during the beginning of the pandemic.

In a response to Norton’s audit, the Democratic governor’s administration agreed the problem needed to be fixed. It blamed the rapid mobilization needed to stock, store and deliver hundreds of thousands of items at a time when protective gear and social distancing were the only tools to keep people safe. It noted a warehouse system was stood up in three weeks.

The state would have needed to shut down warehouses to get a count, which would have prevented it from distributing the equipment to settings including laboratories, nursing homes and schools, said Kelsey Goldsmith, a spokesperson for Maine’s budget department.

The $26 million figure represented about 25 to 30 percent of PPE units the state had on hand at the time, an amount that was kept to make sure the state would not run out of gearif more was suddenly needed, Goldsmith said. The state has delivered 28 million pieces of gear in total and currently has 6.4 million units of PPE in stock, plus more in miscellaneous items, she said.

Norton’s recommended correction plan includes cross-checking the number of items available at each warehouse and assessing the current value of remaining inventory. Those tasks are expected to be completed by the end of the fiscal year ending this June. The auditor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Many states have had large amounts of leftover equipment because of how urgently they were trying to acquire it, said Soumi Saha, vice president of advocacy for Premier Inc., a national group-purchasing brokerage firm. States were often in bidding wars as they tried to acquire as much PPE as possible without understanding how much was needed.

Rodgers’ study found several “perfect storm” causes. Most of the equipment was manufactured outside the U.S. and the supply chain was ill-equipped to handle a crush of demand from the medical field and public. Under former President Donald Trump, the Strategic National Stockpile was quickly overwhelmed, causing states to turn to the private sector. Hospitals were incentivized to keep supplies low because of how they recorded PPE as an expense.

A stockpile is not necessarily a problem, Saha said. Stores could be useful in ensuring states are well prepared for future disasters. But it is a problem if the state does not know what it has, when it expires or where it is located because that means it could go to waste.

“The most important thing is to recognize that we need never to repeat the situation from the last two years,” she said.

Larger Maine health providers largely took care of their own needs at key times during the pandemic, said Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association. He never heard of issues at smaller hospitals, which he said was a credit to the state’s response. The pandemic has since moved through several stages and there is no supply crunch now.

“I can’t remember the last time I heard a complaint about it,” he said.