Behind the masks: Meet our supply chain superheroes

How Mark Welch and his team kept protective supplies strong amid the COVID-19 pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the need for personal protective equipment, or PPE, skyrocketed across the country. Healthcare facilities everywhere found themselves scrambling to outfit providers with the masks, gowns and gloves needed to treat their patients.

Long before the pandemic, though, Mark Welch was getting ready.

Welch is the senior vice president of supply chain at Novant Health. In a normal world, his job involves making sure Novant Health team members across the system have what they need, when they need it and in the most cost-effective way possible.

During a pandemic, he quickly learned that, while the nature of the job remains the same, the speed and intensity go into “hyper mode.”

“We have great data systems, and we know how to plan and account for the amount of PPE we need for each team member on a normal basis. When we start talking about an unpredictable pandemic and the exponential demand for these products, the challenge becomes, where am I going to get enough supply to maintain this level of utilization and then some?” Welch said.

As Welch and his team members monitored the news of the virus outbreak and rapid spread in China, Welch took note and caution. He didn’t know what would come of it, but he started building up Novant Health inventories, just in case. A few months later, when COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S., Welch understood immediately a padded inventory would not be enough.

“What we feared was a situation in which team members would start worrying about not having enough masks, and all the different departments would start ordering as much as they possibly could,” Welch said. “Even though the ideal was to provide face masks and gowns to everyone, we knew we could not sustain that approach. So, in partnership with the clinical team, we built and allocated our supply using more scientific ways and studying the areas that would be most exposed. Because of that conservation and partnership, it allowed us time to build our inventories up even more than what we already had.”

In the old normal, Novant Health team members would use 75,000 to 100,000 N95 masks a year. Now, Welch is buying 500,000 at a time, enough to overwhelm Novant Health’s existing 150,000-plus square feet of warehouse space. Welch’s team had to rent another 50,000-square-foot warehouse just to store the critical inventory.

From those storage facilities, PPE is distributed across the Novant Health system, with shipments to each hospital at least four times a week.

“We had a command center for supply chain, and we were tracking pallets of supplies — where they were coming from and how much we were sending out. It probably took us about six weeks before we got into a good cadence, and we started early,” Welch said. “Now, we have good quantities on hand, and we have a good flow of product. With some of our supplies, we could probably make it to next summer before running low.”

The impact of that work has been profound for those working on the front lines, said Denise Mihal, executive vice president and chief nursing and clinical operations officer for Novant Health.

“Mark Welch and the entire supply chain team have kept our team members and patients safe,” Mihal said. “We had the PPE needed to protect our front line, and that was a huge relief as we managed all of the other stressors of caring for COVID-19 patients and our communities.”

A key element to this supply chain success has been Welch’s alignment with senior leaders at Novant Health. Scott Myers, senior vice president of corporate finance at Novant Health, helped Welch secure the funds necessary to make large-scale purchases, often in record time. And when Novant Health President and CEO Carl Armato and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Lindsay stood up an emergency management team of senior executives, Welch was in regular contact with them, sharing updates on the state of the most critical supplies. 

“We told leadership where we had concerns. We talked about conservation and availability and what products to be cautious about and what was coming in,” Welch said. “This level of communication and transparency gave our entire team a lot of confidence.”

Another key player in this process was the community, whose contributions were vital, especially in the early days of the pandemic, Welch said. In fact, the volume grew so substantial that Novant Health, in collaboration with Novant Health foundation, established a dedicated hotline and email address to help manage incoming PPE contributions.

“We received donations from Lowe’s, Home Depot, Red Ventures and even small companies. We had a dental association call and say, ‘We’re not practicing right now. We have masks. Can we deliver them to you?’ We took them, and we made sure we used them,” Welch said. “The community response was huge — not only in the donations but in the understanding of the support needed and really wanting to help.”

Even though the pandemic isn’t over, the hard work of Welch and his team has paid off, in the form of substantial stockpiles of critical supplies. It also played a vital role in the ongoing safety of patients and team members, said Dr. Pam Oliver, executive vice president of Novant Health and president of Novant Health Physician Network.

“Our tight connection and constant communication with Mark Welch and our supply chain team allowed us to focus on the complex matters of clinical care. We never had to worry about having the PPE and supplies we needed to keep our teams and patients safe,” Oliver said. “Prior to COVID, many of us took that team for granted as they worked in the background without recognition. We now truly appreciate just how crucial they are to our team and our success.”

Everyone on the supply chain team understands their role in the delivery of remarkable care, and their commitment pushed them to continue their important work, even amid a turbulent and uncertain time, Welch said.

“We talk to our team all the time about how important they are to patient care. If you don’t provide the product to the nurses, they can’t provide care to the patients,” Welch said. “The fact my team members came to work when things were tough demonstrates they know exactly how important they are and how they’re related to direct patient care, and that means a lot, to my leadership team, to our front-line workers and to our clinicians, as well.”

Before the pandemic, Welch’s team was known for saying “yes,” for doing whatever it takes to get things done. During the pandemic, that reputation has only grown.

“That’s the personality of our whole team,” Welch said. “We can figure it out, and we’ll get it done.”

You can do your part to be a “yes,” with a donation to Novant Health foundation.

As Mark Welch put it: “No matter the size of the donation, it will come with appreciation from every Novant Health team member. And you can feel confident that anything you donate will be 100% used for what you intended it for.” Do your part and give today.

Donate now