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Saline shortage at Utah hospitals causes concern

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Posted at 9:58 PM, Jun 13, 2014
and last updated 2014-06-14 00:00:20-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- For the last few months, hospital across Utah and the country have been scrambling to make up for a shortage of a critical medical supply.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, since January there has been a nationwide shortage of saline, the liquid in IV bags most patients receive as part of treatment.

“It was scary to think that such a basic product of supply and a treatment was not going to be available and we were having such supply shortages,” said Erin Fox, Director of Drug Information at University of Utah HealthCare.

Inside the University of Utah Hospital, shelves are stacked with the liquid, one of the most sought after items in the building.

“It goes to all of our patient floors. It goes to our OR’s. It goes to our clinics,” Fox said.

The hospital uses approximately 10,000 bags of saline a month, but in recent weeks, meeting that demand has been difficult.

“A few deliveries came up as zero, so, in the middle of January, things started to get tight,” Fox said. “What we were able to do was almost play a little bit of a shell game. You know, move the product from areas of least use to areas of high use.”

The shortage was caused, in part, by a high demand for the liquid during flu season. However, there are only three manufacturers of saline in the U.S. From November through December of last year, all three had to recall shipments of saline because of problems with the liquid or packaging.

“I think all together, plus the flu, our supply chain is fragile enough that all of those things together can create a tremendous shortage of an absolute basic,” Fox said.

The shortage cost the hospital about $150,000 over a one month span.

“It costs a lot of money to have all of your people working on triaging and counting up saline bags and figuring out where to move different saline bags around the hospital,” Fox said. “That costs a lot of money and people’s time, when they should be doing something else.”

The problem was the same inside the Unified Fire Department.

“Stores are a little lower than we’d like them to normally be. In fact, we’re only at about 10 percent of what we keep on reserve,” said Jay Ziolkowski, who is a battalion chief with Unified Fire Authority.

Worried they wouldn’t be able to stock every ambulance with saline, the department tried to overstock before supplies ran out around the country.

“The best we can do is to look ahead, make preparations and then keep those quantities where we can, at least maybe identify where we’re going to have the greatest need and then shift or adapt when we need to,” Ziolkowski said.

So far, Fox and her team have been able to meet demand, but their concerns about the dwindling supply across the country still remain.

“We’re worried at any given time that allocation could dry up again,” Fox said.

In response to the shortage, the FDA has approved the production of saline from facilities overseas. In March, the FDA announced the Illinois based company, Fresenius KAbi USA, would temporarily distribute saline from its Norway factory. In April, they added to the production, with the assistance of a facility in Spain, run by Baxter Healthcare Corp., one of the current U.S. manufacturers of saline.