Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles that highlight the “behind-the-scenes” efforts of various groups at NCI Frederick and FNL to ensure essential operations have continued during the pandemic.
When the pandemic shutdown began in March 2020, offices across NCI at Frederick and the Frederick National Laboratory quickly became ghost towns, as employees packed up and decamped to their newly set-up home offices. But for those engaged in scientific research—including efforts to combat COVID-19 itself—the need to safely work on-site became more critical than ever.
To ensure the science never stopped and researchers could continue to work safely, with access to the supplies and equipment they needed, the Logistics Section from the FNL Emergency Operations Center, which includes members of the Purchasing department, conferred regularly to confirm that critical supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE), got to those who needed them the most.
They had to rethink previous practices, manage global supply chain shortages, and communicate regularly to ensure the left hand knew what the right hand was doing.
Sensing the Storm on the Horizon
Nancy Mayo has been working in the Purchasing department for more than three decades. She’s seen plenty of emergency situations arise, whether from other viruses, such as SARS and Ebola, or from overseas conflicts. “Experience is the best teacher,” she said.
So when Mayo started seeing headlines about a new virus infecting people in China in the fall of 2019, she began to prepare. “I started to order coveralls, masks, and gloves,” she recalled.
Thanks to her experience and foresight, FNL had a lot of PPE supplies on hand in January 2020, but as the pandemic wore on and supply chain issues led to increased delivery times, it became substantially harder to resupply some items, including masks and hand sanitizer.
That meant the Purchasing and Logistics teams had to rethink some of their usual operating procedures. “We had to look at revising our reorder points,” said Debi Hogarty, senior manager, Purchasing. “We also worked with our suppliers to let them know we’d have to order more than our usual numbers because of the delays.”
The Purchasing team also stayed in constant contact with Mark Whitmore, logistics analyst II in the FNL supply management warehouse, to ensure they each knew when to expect shipments and how to best manage demand. “Usage is way up on a number of items—almost double on some,” he said. “And because the supply chain is affected everywhere, [estimated times of arrival] are subjective. We’ve been encouraging folks to get items on their own, especially if they are buying smaller quantities.”
They also used the “Ask Your Colleagues” page on FNL’s Insite intranet to communicate the importance of working collaboratively to share supplies when possible and not hoarding items that others might need to continue their work.
Meeting the Demand
Mayo said that keeping laboratory personnel supplied with PPE has remained a priority throughout the pandemic, but so, too, have efforts to ensure scientists and researchers have the equipment they need to advance their experiments.
“Getting pipette tips has been critical, and it is still an issue,” she said. Other laboratory materials, including reagents, vials, and petri dishes have also had to be ordered with longer lag times in mind. “There’s no such thing as overnight shipping right now,” Mayo added.
While the Purchasing team has been working remotely since the shutdown began, Whitmore and his 25 coworkers have been on-site, in the mailroom and the supply and maintenance warehouses. They have continued to make time-sensitive deliveries to offices and laboratories at NCI at Frederick and FNL throughout the pandemic.
For Ray Stine, logistics analyst II, the hardest part can simply be finding people to accept his deliveries. “Before all this, you might have 10 or so people in a lab. Now there might be only one or two—and they might be there only at a few points throughout the day,” he said.
But when Stine is delivering critical samples, he needs someone to be on hand to sign for the materials. His role also means he doesn’t experience the safety of working within the isolated confines of a home office. Stine, outfitted with PPE, must enter and exit numerous locations every day.
“You’re always nervous because you don’t want to take it (COVID) home,” he said. “And it can be nerve-wracking when you find out that someone in a building you were in got the virus.”
But he’s reminded of the value of his work when recipients treat him like Santa Claus when he arrives with their supplies. “It happens all the time,” he said.
It’s thanks to Stine’s work, as well as that of all members of Purchasing, Logistics and EHS, that Mayo can say with confidence, “It has never gotten to the critical point where the science has been impaired or work had to shut down.”
Lessons Learned for the Next Crisis
When the public health crisis began in 2020, Leidos Biomedical Research, FNL’s lead contractor, launched its Emergency Operations Center to ensure that critical operations would continue despite the challenges. As part of that plan, a network of interdepartmental teams was established to ensure lines of communication remained open and to avoid surprise disruptions.
Mike Gearheart, environment, health and safety manager, was selected to serve as the Emergency Operations Center Logistics Section chief. He became responsible for ensuring that all section parties would know each other’s needs as well as needs communicated from senior leadership.
Although Gearheart hadn’t regularly worked with the Purchasing team before, he says their regular meetings during the pandemic have reinforced how critical teamwork is to making the mission work. “I certainly have a better understanding now of the systems in place to acquire supplies. And it has shown that we need a team to keep essential operations going,” he said. “And we’ve done it well.”
His colleagues agree. “This entire experience has taught us the importance of being prepared, and I think it has made us better at our jobs,” Hogarty said. “We have had to be more attentive, communicate regularly and engage in more follow-up. It’s been logistically more challenging, but we have found ways to work through that.”